The Florida Democratic Party sent a cease and desist letter to whoever was ultimately behind an email blast to St. Petersburg voters sharing information about mayoral candidate Ken Welch.
The email in question came out in two versions. One was distributed with the “from” line titled simply “St. Pete Update.” But a second claimed it was from “St. Pete Democrat Update.”
Florida Democratic Party General Counsel Benjamin Tyler took issue with that wording in the letter sent to the email sender, listed generically as [email protected]. The cease and desist letter does not name a responsible party and is addressed only to the originating email address with the opening greeting “to whom it may concern.”
The email, which contained past media coverage, including a Tampa Bay Times editorial, about Welch and controversy stemming from an alleged conflict of interest over lobbying for a job for his wife when he served as a Pinellas County Commissioner, states that the communication was paid for by the group Citizens for a Health St. Pete. The email address suggests an affiliation with the website floridadisaster.com.
While there is no direct proof of who sent it, the website previously redirected users to another, 123Florida.com, according to old site images documented on Wayback Machine. That website is now registered for sale, with an email for inquiries directed to [email protected]. Rask.org is affiliated with local activist Tom Rask.
The Florida Democratic Party did not name Rask in its letter asking that Citizens for a Healthy St. Pete stop using the name “Democrat,” “or any derivative thereof, in connection with any political advertisements or any club, group, association, or organization of any kind.” They cautioned that any continued use “could result in legal ramifications” and that the Party “reserves the right to take any action available under Florida law.”
The email cites state statute giving exclusive rights to “the name, abbreviation, or symbol of any political party … in political advertising” to the registered party, which in this case is the Florida Democratic Party. Those rights apply, according to the referenced statute, “unless such person shall first obtain the written permission of the chair of the state executive committee of the party name, abbreviation, or symbol of which is to be used.”
The statute goes on to list similar rules for the use of an official party name “in connection with any club, group, association, or organization of any kind.”
The letter claims no such permission was granted.
Rask did not 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 in question explicitly references the matter 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 a federal investigation over their use and that Welch was “unrepentant” about the misstep.
Following reports of that email, which Welch’s opponent, City Council member Robert Blackmon, said he had no knowledge of or involvement in, Pinellas County Democratic Party Chair Lucinda Johnston blasted Blackmon’s campaign over the communication.
“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.”