A shadowy group emailed voters in St. Petersburg Wednesday highlighting past controversies involving mayoral candidate Ken Welch.
The email, which focuses on a Tampa Bay Times editorial criticizing Welch for an “obvious conflict of interest” involving his advocacy as a Pinellas County Commissioner on behalf of his wife, was paid for by a group called Citizens for a Healthy St. Pete, according to its required disclosure. It came from an email address associated with the website floridadisaster.com.
Citizens for a Healthy St. Pete, which the email disclosure states paid for the political communication, is not listed as a political committee with the Florida Division of Elections, the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections or the City of St. Petersburg Clerk’s office.
Further, FloridaDisaster.com, a website pushing information on natural disasters with advertising from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is registered through a privacy domain service called Jewella Privacy. The company, based in Louisiana, specializes in hiding domain registrant information from Whois data used to identify website registrants.
However, the website previously redirected users to another website, 123Florida.com, according to old images of the site documented on Wayback Machine. That domain is also registered with Jewella and is now registered for sale, with an email for inquiries directed to [email protected]. Rask.org is affiliated with local activist Tom Rask.
Rask did not immediately respond to a Florida Politics email inquiring about the correspondence to St. Pete voters about Welch, but Rask has a storied history with the former Pinellas County Commissioner.
In 2014, when numerous county leaders were pushing the failed Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum, Welch served as the chair of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Rask, a leader of the Greenlight opposition group No Tax for Tracks, frequently targeted Welch in his role on PSTA. Rask was accused of, but denied, creating a parody video comparing Welch and other Greenlight supporters to Nazi soldiers. The video appeared on fellow Greenlight critic David McKalip’s blog. McKalip said Rask created the video, which was later taken down, but Rask denied his involvement.
After Greenlight Pinellas failed at the ballot box, Rask sent an email to the PSTA board likening Welch to a Russian communist.
While there’s no proof Rask is behind the latest attack on Welch, his past relationship shows it’s not outside the realm of possibility he’d be working to thwart Welch’s efforts to succeed incumbent St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman.
The email specifically references an issue with which Rask took particular issue in 2014. PSTA, at the time, used federal funds meant for anti-terrorism measures on public transit to promote Greenlight Pinellas. The agency later returned the money to the Department of Homeland Security, but Rask continuously pushed the issue. That email claims PSTA only returned the funds after facing federal investigation over their use and that Welch was “unrepentant” about the misstep.
A second, identical email went out to voters Thursday with different wording in the “from” category. While it hailed from the same disaster.org email address, the first email said it was from “St. Pete Update.” The second email said it was from “St. Pete Democrat Update.” The Pinellas County Democratic Party took exception to the possibly misleading inference that the communication came from the party, and to the name of the unknown group that allegedly paid for the communication, Citizens for a Healthy St. Pete. That name sounds similar to a legitimate organization, Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, which is a private health foundation in St. Pete that facilitates grants to promote a healthy citizenry.
“This is a deceitful attempt by Robert Blackmon’s supporters to link the Pinellas County Democratic Party and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete to this smear of Ken Welch, a 20 year veteran of distinguished public service,” Pinellas County Democratic Party Chair Lucinda Johnston told Florida Politics in a text. “Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a disgraceful attempt to mislead St. Petersburg voters, and it reveals the character of Blackmon’s supporters.”
The latest email, it’s worth noting, does not mention Welch’s opponent, Robert Blackmon, and makes no call to action to vote for Blackmon. Blackmon told Florida Politics his campaign was unaware of the email until it was shared with his team and didn’t know who was behind it.
“We had no prior knowledge or participation in the communication, and were surprised by its release,” Blackmon said.
But as they say, never look a gift horse in the mouth.
“It does raise some very troubling concerns about Ken’s integrity, record and behavior as an elected official. I hope voters will choose wisely when they go to the polls November 2nd,” Blackmon added.
Welch’s campaign implied they weren’t buying Blackmon’s claim that he knew nothing of the email.
“Color me shocked — while we’re busy working with members of the community to bring inclusive progress to St. Pete, Blackmon is using trolls to do his dirty work and tear apart the community. I guess this is what he meant by being ‘in touch’ with the community,” Welch Campaign Manager Stephanie Owens wrote in a statement to Florida Politics.
Florida Politics reporter Jacob Ogles contributed to this report.