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Dealing with campaign crisis, Jamie Bennett to continue race for St. Petersburg mayor

ST. PETERSBURG — Hoping he can rebound from the biggest crisis of his eight-year political career, Jamie Bennett on Monday vowed to stay in the mayor's race despite calls for him to pull out and the possibility of state elections and ethics probes.

"The Bennett signs went up this weekend," said Bennett, who has served on the City Council since 2001. "We're going to keep fighting for this. I still consider myself the best candidate."

Bennett, 56, acknowledged to the St. Petersburg Times on Friday that his campaign manager passed out tickets to the city's suite at Tropicana Field last month in a campaign folder that included a letter soliciting election contributions.

Bennett said he didn't learn about the incident, although he was there when it happened, until he was confronted by questions from the Times. He fired the campaign manager, Peter Schorsch, Friday afternoon.

The next day Schorsch, 33, responded, levying a series of allegations against Bennett, including that the candidate intentionally used the baseball tickets to influence neighborhood leaders, failed to report campaign expenses and attempted to sabotage the campaigns of at least four other mayoral candidates.

"He viewed it as taking it to the next level," Schorsch said in a lengthy interview Saturday.

Bennett denied almost all the allegations, but they cast an unflattering light on a candidate struggling in a crowded field.

If Schorsch is telling the truth, Bennett knowingly participated in a calculated scheme to use the city's baseball tickets for political gain. If Bennett is right, recent events paint a picture of his campaign manager acting as a rogue agent without oversight or accountability.

Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer who has represented elected officials in ethics and election cases, said Bennett could face multiple state investigations.

At issue is whether Bennett knew Schorsch was handing out the tickets in a campaign folder and whether Bennett purposefully failed to file accurate campaign expense reports.

The Florida Commission on Ethics and the Florida Elections Commission, the groups that would investigate the allegations, require a citizen complaint to begin an inquiry. St. Petersburg resident Jim Donelon said he intended to file complaints this week.

Meanwhile, calls for Bennett to quit the race began to trickle in.

"If he doesn't act proactively, and if he doesn't act immediately, it's something that he should consider," said former council member Jay Lasita, a longtime friend.

Mayoral hopeful Sharon Russ said Bennett's credibility was shot. "He should get out of the race," she said.

Others saw little hope Bennett could salvage his mayoral bid.

"It's very damaging," said council member Herb Polson. "This is a serious allegation in a very heated mayoral campaign with nine candidates."

Asked if Bennett should drop out of the race or resign from the City Council, Mayor Rick Baker demurred. "I think it's his decision," he said.

As for the campaign's mingling of city tickets with campaign material, Baker said: "I think even Jamie acknowledges that wasn't the right thing to do."

Those closest to Bennett continued to support him.

"Given that Schorsch has a previous history of being a liar and dirtbag, I don't believe any of it," said Jack Tunstill, a leading advocate for Albert Whitted Airport, one of Bennett's most notable constituencies. "Jamie's proceeding on. And Schorsch is a snake in the grass."

Bennett's decision to bring Schorsch into his inner circle troubled many from the beginning. He and Schorsch were inseparable, and Schorsch could often be found in Bennett's council office.

Once a rising star in local politics, Schorsch 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. Adjudication was withheld. Schorsch also still owes the state more than $67,000 for 40 election law violations in 2005.

State Rep. Rick Kriseman said he had several conversations with Bennett warning him about Schorsch.

"Peter's background obviously speaks for itself," said Kriseman, a former council member. "I understand wanting to give someone a second chance, but I don't know if you would want to put someone in that position. I wouldn't."

Council member Karl Nurse said he left a Creative Loafing story about Schorsch's personal blog on Bennett's desk. On the newsprint, Nurse wrote, "run, Forest, run."

"It was obviously bad judgment to hire Peter," Nurse said.

Still, Bennett denied that the hire had been a mistake.

"He got my campaign up and running, and I was very happy with it," he said Saturday, minutes after learning of Schorsch's accusations. "He proved himself. He was very valuable, but ultimately his problems overcame and got in his way."

Times political editor Adam Smith contributed to this report. Follow the mayor's race at www.tampabay.com/mayor.

Dealing with campaign crisis, Jamie Bennett to continue race for St. Petersburg mayor 05/11/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 4:51pm]
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