Wheeler-Brown foundation: crime or campaign dirt?
It's been an ugly race in District 7. The seat being vacated by term-limited Wengay Newton is being contested by Lisa Wheeler-Brown and Wengay's younger brother Will Newton in a bare-knuckles fight rife with accusations.
The latest attack involves a foundation formed by Wheeler-Brown in honor of her son, Cabretti, who was murdered in 2008. Newton supporters say the fact that Wheeler-Brown's foundation didn't file tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service nor provide records raise questions about how the money was spent.
Council member Amy Foster, who has endorsed Newton, said she was concerned about Wheeler-Brown's judgement.
"It does give me pause about her attention to detail and her ability to follow regulations," said Foster, who is the executive director of the Guardian Ad Litem Foundation of Tampa Bay, before a City Council meeting Thursday.
Foster said her experience as a non-profit executive has taught her the importance of audits and following correct financial procedures.
A report in a local blog said the foundation had raised $81,000, according to a non-profit website, Manta.com.
But Manta.com's response to an inquiry from the Wheeler-Brown campaign suggests that anyone could have added that amount. The Times obtained the email from the Wheeler-Brown campaign.
Here is the email from Manta.com:
"Thank you for contacting Manta. The basic company information on Manta is collected by third-party publishers through multiple sources such as trade records, public records such as business registrations and government registries.
When a company profile is marked as having been updated with a person’s name, the data has been provided by a representative of the company.
The estimated annual sales and number of employees are derived using statistical models based on the industry, age of business, geographic region and other criteria.
If you’re the business owner (or their representative) you can claim and edit the Manta company profile.
Claiming your company profile is free, and lets you easily edit anything on the page so customers have your most up to date information. You can include your own words, web address, the company logo, a showcase page of your products or services, manage your recommendations and more.
Just locate your company on Manta and click the "Own This Business" button. Register, enter your company information, and submit the form. Done!"
Wheeler-Brown's campaign said she raised only about $300 at a fish fry for family and friends. Not $81,000.
The $300 was intended to hire a lawyer or someone familiar with setting up a non-profit. But after further attempts at fundraising didn't go well, Wheeler-Brown decided to donate the sum to a street cleaning effort for at-risk youth in her neighborhood. She never registered for 501c3 status, said Tom Alte, a campaign consultant.
Wheeler-Brown did receive a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice award for her "foundation." The DOJ praised her efforts in challenging the "no-snitching code" in her community.
That's exactly what Wheeler-Brown has done for years, said council member Karl Nurse, who has endorsed her.
"My take is that the Will Newton campaign has engaged in gutter politics for two months," said Nurse. "This is the dirtiest campaign I've ever seen."
Newton's campaign manager Steve Lapinski didn't return a calls for comment.
But Newton said he didn't understand Nurse's decision to weigh in.
"Karl Nurse is not my opponent. Why is he even commenting on this race?" Newton said. When asked why Foster chose to comment, Newton said he couldn't speak for Foster.
When asked if Wheeler-Brown could provide any documentation about the money raised or how it was distributed, Alte said the records were lost when Wachovia Bank was absorbed into Wells Fargo in 2008.
Wheeler-Brown didn't respond to a request for comment. But her campaign blamed the Newton camp for spreading a "malicious" lie and demanded an apology.
"These malicious and false accusations using obviously fabricated sources are completely unacceptable. To accuse the mother of a murdered child of profiting from her son's death with absolutely no evidence is disgusting. The Newton campaign should be ashamed for pushing this lie and providing sources they knew were false to back up their attack." said Meagan Salisbury, Wheeler-Brown's campaign manager. "Lisa is an incredibly strong woman to survive the grief of losing her child to gun violence, and an inspirational leader for turning tragedy into action for her community. She'll continue to share her positive message and talk about the issues our city faces, but frankly, Mr. Newton owes the voters, and Lisa, an apology for these disgusting allegations. St. Petersburg deserves better."
Newton declined to discuss the statement or apologize.
"I'm sorry for her loss, but I don't have any comment on that," he said.
The citywide election for the seat representing Midtown, Childs Park and other southern neighborhoods is Nov. 3.