The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office recommended criminal charges against three Democrats running for County Commission — all for accepting campaign donations in excess of local limits.
Officials with the Sheriff’s Office shared probable cause affidavits laying out the charges for Mark Pienkos, Cory Hutchinson and Alice White. The three individuals are running for Sarasota County Commission respectively in Districts 1, 3 and 5.
Officials stressed the crime reports were “non-arrest PCAs.” Ultimately, it will be up to the State Attorney’s Office to determine whether to pursue charges in a court of law. Investigators recommend charging each candidate with violating the Sarasota County charter, a misdemeanor offense.
State Attorney Ed Brodsky could not be reached for comment.
The county charter prohibits candidates for county office from accepting donations larger than $200.
But financial records show Pienkos accepted $6,000 from the state party and $1,500 from the county Democratic Executive Committee. Hutchinson collected $2,000 from the county party and White collected $1,000. Jack Brill, Republican Party of Sarasota County acting chair, first drew attention to the donations with a letter to county officials.
Reports by Detective J. Patella indicate all three candidates ultimately returned the money given in excess of county limits.
Hutchinson, who acts as his own campaign treasurer, met with Patella and said he knew about the contribution limits, but had been told by Sarasota County DEC Chair JoAnne DeVries that parties could donate more.
Hutchinson told Florida Politics he’s not sure what happens now that the Sheriff’s Office has recommended charges. ”I really have no comment,” he said. But he said as soon as it was clear the contributions did exceed legal limits he gave the money back.
White told Patella approximately the same thing.
Pienkos previously said told Florida Politics he gave the money back that exceeded limits, but only out of an abundance of caution. He issued a press release earlier this month making clear he still believed the donations were legal.
“Florida State law allows political parties to donate to candidates in excess of limits set to individuals,” the release said.
Patella’s reports indicate Pienkos would not sit down with law enforcement himself. Instead, attorney Derek Byrd contacted Patella on Pienkos’ behalf and said the candidate “did not wish to discuss the matter with investigators.”
DeVries painted the recommendation for charges as a political ploy days before the election.
“The impartiality of our justice system represents the foundation of our civil society in America. When the justice system is used as a political tool it undermines everyone’s faith in the justice system,” she said. “It is undeniable that these local candidates did not violate any Florida State laws and that political parties are allowed to donate to candidates. Whether this local ordinance applies to political parties is a legal issue that has never been decided in our local courts.
“Instead, the history in Sarasota County shows that political committees, like the ones used by Republican candidates, not political parties, were added to the text of the ordinance when it was rewritten over a decade ago. It is also undeniable that the donations in this instance were refunded. Refunds for donations over the ordinance limit of $200 occur in many county races including the most recent race for Sarasota Sheriff.”
The fact the money was given back should be the end of the matter, DeVries said.
“Usually, once the error has been discovered, the campaign issues a refund. What is unusual in this instance is that one political opponent requested a political prosecution. All Sarasota residents should condemn such political prosecutions,” she said. “Luckily, the voters of Sarasota County are smart enough to see what is going on with this blatant political investigation and they will not be distracted and will instead in five days end the era of one-party rule.”
Republican Party of Sarasota County officials also released a statement regarding the recommendation of charges. It made clear the investigation was prompted not by Brill’s letter but another outside interest.
“A private citizen filed a complaint regarding illegal campaign contributions with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, which is tasked with enforcing Sarasota County’s Charter that the contributions violated,” the statement reads. “The Sheriff’s Office conducted their investigation and found probable cause that the three Democrats had indeed committed campaign finance violations. Contrary to an absurd media question, the Republican Party of Sarasota County is not ‘pressing charges’ or ‘recommending charges’ against Democrats — that is the role of the Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office when a law has been broken. The Party is not involved in this process. This is strictly a law enforcement matter.”
That said, party leaders suggested reaction to the charges has differed from treatment of prominent campaign treasurer Eric Robinson over a criminal investigation regarding reporting issues.
“We will note the media’s sudden interest in what a dangerous path this is for our politics when barely one month ago the same media were totally disinterested in such concerns when Republican School Board Member Eric Robinson was being investigated for campaign finance violations — after he lost re-election,” the statement reads. “In fact, Robinson has been a favorite target of Democrats and the media on numerous complaints and they were all reported simply as complaints then — never ‘why are Democrats pressing charges.’ And every complaint has been dismissed against him.”