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Is Wengay Newton misleading voters with fundraising pitch for a campaign he’s not running?

Newton already filed to run for Pinellas County Commission, but raised funds for his House race.

Rep. Wengay Newton was raising funds for his reelection right up until the last minute even though he’s not actually seeking reelection.

Lawmakers are not allowed to raise campaign funds during Legislative Session, which started Tuesday. Newton sent an email to supporters Sunday asking for their continued support with a link to donate to his House District 70 campaign by midnight on Monday.

But there’s a problem. Newton announced earlier this month he would not seek reelection to his current House district and instead run for Pinellas County Commission. He has already filed for the race with the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office. As such, he’s allowed to raise money for the commission race. So why raise funds for House District 70 if that’s not the campaign he plans to wage?

Newton’s email makes no mention of his intention to run for Pinellas County Commission and leads supporters to believe he still intends to seek reelection to House District 70. He filed for the Pinellas County Commission race two days before he sent the email. He announced his intention five days before that.

“I’m reminded of what is important and worth fighting for. In a district that covers Pinellas, Manatee, Hillsborough and Sarasota we have many needs. Affordable Housing, Living Wage Jobs, Healthcare, Good Schools, Infrastructure and our Environment. With the relationships and bridges that I’ve built over the years. I will continue to work hard to provide for the needs of District 70,” Newton wrote in the email.

Technically, Newton hasn’t done anything wrong. His email sent including his Monday at midnight deadline safely keeps him within the restrictions on Legislative Session fundraising. And even though he filed to run for Pinellas County Commission, he has still filed as a candidate for the Florida House.

But his email raises eyebrows because it’s misleading.

“I will continue to work hard to provide for the needs of District 70,” Newton wrote. “I’m humbled and it’s an honor and a privilege to be your voice in Tallahassee.”

So what it sounds like is, Newton is asking supporters to donate money meant to keep him in Tallahassee in a role he has no intention to further pursue. He’s asking supporters to donate to a race he has already said he plans to abandon.

What makes it more troubling is that Newton is using a loophole in campaign finance rules to park his money from one race until he can transfer it to another.

According to Newton’s campaign, he can transfer money raised for his House race to his Pinellas County Commission race.

To do that, he must notify all of his contributors when he’s ready to make the transfer asking for their permission to use the money they donated to one race for a different one. If anyone objects, he simply refunds their contribution.

According to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office, there is not a conflict with him being an announced candidate in two races. Newton will have to pick one before qualifying for a race, however. That process is not due until June.

Newton already has $38,000 banked in his House race. That’s more than triple the top-earning candidate in the Pinellas County Commission race. Rene Flowers has raised $12,320. Another Democrat in the race, former Rep. Frank Peterman Jr., has raised less than $4,000.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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