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Bennett campaign accepted cash donations over legal limit

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral candidate Jamie Bennett collected multiple cash donations in excess of the state's $50 contribution limit, according to campaign finance reports reviewed by the St. Petersburg Times.

When the city clerk brought the problem to his attention, Bennett quickly submitted an amended report that listed new amounts in compliance with state election laws.

But a month after he filed that amended report, Bennett acknowledged Friday he has yet to return the extra cash he shouldn't have accepted in the first place.

"That wasn't the way to do it," said City Clerk Eva Andujar, who has suggested the campaign submit a second amended report. Along with the improper donations, both of Bennett's reports were laced with spelling errors, incorrect addresses and missing information.

The campaign finance problem is the latest setback for Bennett's mayoral effort, which has dealt with reports that Bennett used his authority as a City Council member to try to influence community leaders.

Bennett, who has tried to reassure voters he has done nothing wrong, said he sent a letter to contributors this week informing them of the mistakes. He also asked donors to verify his financial records so he can make any necessary reimbursements and corrections. His first campaign report listed a dozen donations above the cash limit, but it's unclear whether they were actually cash or simply described incorrectly.

"We understand that there are errors in the report and we are doing everything we can to correct those errors as soon as possible," said Bennett.

Bennett declined to discuss individual errors until after he filed a new report with all the correct information.

It is a misdemeanor to intentionally submit an inaccurate or incomplete finance report or to accept cash contributions in excess of $50, said Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Elections. The law allows non-cash donations of up to $500.

A complaint must be filed with the state attorney's office or the elections office before the state can investigate.

Another mayoral candidate, Kathleen Ford, also accepted one cash contribution in excess of $50, according to her report. Notified of the error Thursday, Ford said she would likely submit an amended report next week.

Bennett is already under fire for a recent admission that he used his campaign manager to hand out tickets to the city's suite at Tropicana Field. Bennett said it had nothing to do with his mayoral campaign.

He then fired his campaign manager, Peter Schorsch, after Schorsch distributed tickets to the city's suite along with campaign material.

Bennett has since hired a new manager and treasurer. But instead of the fresh start the campaign envisioned, Bennett's new employees are now scrambling to organize their records.

Andujar said she notified Bennett of multiple errors on his handwritten finance report a day or two after the April 10 submission deadline.

The campaign hired neighborhood activist Tim Baker to input the data electronically. Baker found the campaign had incorrectly characterized some contributions made online as cash payments.

"I just typed in what they gave to me," said Baker. "The totals might not have been right, but I didn't amend anything."

Bennett's attorney suggested he send out a letter to at least a dozen supporters asking that they verify their contribution amounts and contact information.

If he can't sort out who donated what, Bennett said he will give any unclaimed contributions to the Pinellas Hope homeless shelter.

"We will check the authenticity of the donation, and if returning it is necessary, we will return (it) and then we will deal with the rest of it," he said.

Bennett raised roughly $30,000, putting him third in fundraising in a field of nine mayoral candidates.

It's unclear why his campaign had such a hard time keeping track of contributions.

Gallery owner Mike Shapiro said he donated a $100 check and $75 in cash. Bennett's first finance report confirms this.

The amended finance report, however, states Shapiro gave a check for $175. But Shapiro said he was never contacted by the campaign about a reimbursement, and he does not remember writing a new check.

Other errors seem to reflect sloppy record keeping.

The first finance report states Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch donated $100 in cash. The amended report states Welch gave a $100 check.

"I didn't give cash," said Welch. "It was always a check."

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Bennett campaign accepted cash donations over legal limit 05/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2009 10:49pm]
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