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Bennett fires campaign manager over handing out Rays tickets with campaign material

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral candidate Jamie Bennett fired his campaign manager Friday after he admitted handing out baseball tickets to the city's suite at Tropicana Field in a campaign folder filled with political literature and a letter requesting an election contribution.

Bennett, a City Council member, said he was unaware volunteer campaign manager Peter Schorsch gave two tickets to a local neighborhood association president with a political contribution request attached.

"Help me put together the seed money that will grow a campaign that can win," Bennett wrote in the letter, which was opposite two tickets to last Sunday's Tampa Bay Rays game, and two passes to the city's box suite.

State laws prohibit elected officials from using their position to receive special privileges or favors.

Bennett said he allowed Schorsch to pass out the tickets — which are split among the eight sitting council members — with the understanding that they would not be used for campaign purposes.

He was even in the car with Schorsch when his campaign manager delivered the tickets, Bennett said. But Bennett said he did not know Schorsch included a 9-by-12 folder filled with campaign information in the ticket drop.

"We had conversations about the line of division, how things had to be kept separate," said Bennett, who put his head in hands as he talked Friday. "I had no idea (tickets) were going out in a campaign folder."

Questions first surfaced last week when mayoral candidates Scott Wagman and Bill Foster criticized Bennett's decision to distribute city tickets via his campaign manager. Foster even proposed changing city policy regarding the baseball tickets, which city officials receive as part of a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.

When faced with the new allegations by the St. Petersburg Times, Schorsch denied including the tickets in the campaign packet last week. "Those were two totally separate outreach activities," he said.

But an e-mail from Schorsch to neighborhood president Darren Bishop shows otherwise. "Darren … dropped tickets underneath your front door mat … inside a campaign folder," Schorsch wrote. "You've got two tickets and corresponding passes to come up to the box."

Schorsch then denied sending the e-mail, but later admitted he did. Schorsch insisted that only Bishop received Rays tickets nestled inside a campaign packet. He simply put the tickets in the folder to "protect them," Schorsch said.

"If all he wanted to do was protect the tickets, put them in that folder and scratch out the campaign stuff and not include any of that literature," said Bishop, president of the Northeast Park Neighborhood Association.

Bishop, 32, is not supporting any candidate for mayor, he said, but added that he is Bennett's friend on the social networking Web site Facebook.

"You can imagine how disappointing it was for me to know that a candidate I was interested in did this," said Bishop, who has met Bennett only once.

A citizen must file a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics before the state could investigate the ticket giveaway. City rules prohibiting the use of city resources for election activities do not apply to elected officials, said assistant city attorney Mark Winn.

"Those people are elected," Winn said. "We don't hire them or fire them."

Schorsch, 33, was once thought of as a gifted political operative, but more recently he has been considered a liability.

In 2005, St. Petersburg City Council member Leslie Curran fired Schorsch after a check he wrote to pay for campaign signs bounced. Former City Council member Earnest Williams said he fired Schorsch that same year after he failed to deliver mail pieces and to send out absentee ballots.

In 2006, Schorsch was charged with writing 16 worthless checks totaling more than $1,200 for cash at Publix. He pleaded guilty and was fined.

He also was arrested in 2006 on charges he stole nearly $10,000 from the Tarpon Springs Democratic Club and from Ed Helm and Eve Joy, who ran for mayor and a seat on the St. Petersburg City Council, respectively, a year earlier.

And he still owes the Florida Election Commission more than $67,000 after the commission said he committed 40 separate election law violations in 2005.

Bennett said he gave Schorsch a second chance, a decision that puzzled many, especially in such a critical race.

"We were curious as to why Jamie would actually hire Peter after the debacle that he had with our campaign and other people's campaigns," said Earnest Williams. "Peter has great potential of doing a great job, the problem arose that he was doing things that were not appropriate. "

In a statement, Bennett said he plans to name an interim campaign manager by Monday.

"Peter is a gifted individual and we offered him a chance to be a part of a campaign because of his talents," Bennett said. "But this campaign cannot be about this."

Times staff writer Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com. Read more about the mayor's race at tampabay.com/mayor.

Bennett fires campaign manager over handing out Rays tickets with campaign material 05/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 4:55pm]
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