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Pasco superintendent candidates face a little dirt-digging

While the candidates for Pasco superintendent have had their disagreements, they have not slung much mud in the decidedly low-key campaign.

That doesn't mean no one is digging, though.

Democratic challenger Stephen Donaldson, a Gulf High social studies teacher, got word this week that state Republican Party opposition researcher Ken Muszynski — known in the past for searching a Brevard candidate's garbage — has requested copies from his school personnel file.

An anonymous e-mail writer, meanwhile, sent copies of a federal lawsuit and a 14-year-old bankruptcy filing to the St. Petersburg Times under the subject line "important information about Steve Donaldson."

At the same time, Republican incumbent Heather Fiorentino reported that a Tampa law firm asked for four years' worth of her calendars and travel records.

"I don't think I've ever been in an election where I've not had something pulled on me," said Fiorentino, who has run eight campaigns. "It doesn't surprise me."

Donaldson, making his first run for public office, expressed disdain for this side of politics.

"At times I feel violated," he said. But there might be a bright side if a "slimy, shadowy" operative is delving into his past, he added: "Maybe we've got their attention. Maybe this race is closer than we thought."

Muszynski did not return calls seeking comment.

Both hopefuls said they had nothing to do with any attempts to find information on the other.

Donaldson insisted his campaign is focusing on issues and not attacks, despite the urging of some supporters. Fiorentino said some backers also urged her to go negative, but explained that she, too, does not want to win that way.

"We both have worked very hard and we've had a good race," she said. "I plan on continuing that way."

Supporters for each camp similarly denied any involvement in seeking dirt.

"It's certainly not coming from our organization," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, which backs Donaldson.

Pasco Republican chairman Bill Bunting, who has endorsed Fiorentino, said the local GOP had nothing to do with the opposition research against Donaldson. If the candidates have nothing to hide, Bunting added, they should have nothing to worry about.

Donaldson said he had no secrets, though he admitted it can be painful to see some past actions from his life in print.

He suspected that the Tallahassee researcher was looking into a rumor that Donaldson failed to disclose his 1996 DUI arrest on his job application, an omission that could result in dismissal.

But Donaldson ultimately pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of reckless driving, which did not require disclosure, according to the district human resources office.

He downplayed a 1999 federal breach of contract suit, which was quickly dismissed with prejudice, as well as a 1994 bankruptcy, which closed in 1999. Both were delivered anonymously to the Times via e-mail.

"Nobody is perfect. Everybody faces challenges in life," Donaldson said. "I certainly have faced mine."

Fiorentino said she did not know why someone would want to see her records. It might be related to questions raised about whether she billed the school district for time she spent working as a state lawmaker, some observers speculated.

Webb said she had heard some people were interested in Fiorentino's use of her district car. Fiorentino has said she does not drive the car home, but acknowledged she does sometimes leave it at Gulf High near her home.

She, like Donaldson, shrugged off the inquiries.

"I don't think it matters," she said. "If people want to look, fine."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco superintendent candidates face a little dirt-digging 10/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 7:08pm]
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