ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral hopeful Jamie Bennett intentionally tried to influence neighborhood presidents and community leaders with free baseball tickets to the city's suite at Tropicana Field, said a campaign organizer fired Friday over the controversy.
But campaign manager Peter Schorsch's allegations don't stop there. Schorsch said he and Bennett plotted and schemed to discredit other candidates and misled the public about their dirty campaign tactics, even going as far as to entice homeless people to crash rival Kathleen Ford's news conference.
"Mr. Nice Guy is not that," Schorsch said Saturday, a day after he admitted giving a neighborhood president baseball tickets in a campaign folder filled with political literature and a letter requesting an election contribution. "He wanted to be the big city mayor for a long time, and the animal inside came out."
Bennett insisted Saturday that he played no role in his former aide's political maneuvering.
"I am very sad that he has decided to say these spiteful things," said Bennett, a longtime City Council member. "What Peter did is what Peter did. He needs to own up to those things."
Schorsch, 33, admitted his dismissal motivated him to come clean about what he called the campaign's "fraternity high jinks." He said he urged Bennett to be frank about the campaign's political tactics and to write a check to reimburse the city for the baseball tickets.
Schorsch said Bennett was at first reticent to bring him on as a hired campaign employee given Schorsch's previous legal troubles. He 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. Schorsch also still owes the state more than $67,000 for 40 election law violations in 2005.
But Schorsch said Bennett offered to pay him through a secondary party so Schorsch's name wouldn't appear on campaign finance reports. Schorsch said he refused, and instead worked for free until the campaign started to pay him directly in April. Bennett denied making the offer.
Among Schorsch's other allegations:
• Schorsch created a Web site to smear mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons and sent Gibbons' spotty driving record to 150 Gibbons contributors. Schorsch said Bennett reimbursed him for the envelopes and encouraged him because he wanted to stall Gibbons' fundraising efforts.
"I had no idea what he was doing with Deveron," Bennett said. "I overheard conversations, but I had no clue what they were doing."
• Schorsch said Bennett called him hours before candidate Ford was scheduled to hold a news conference at City Hall and said, "Wouldn't it be great if we got homeless people or protestors to the event?" Schorsch said he created fliers promising bus passes, $1 and T-shirts to those who showed up. He then said he and Bennett celebrated at BellaBrava on Central Avenue afterward. "He thought it was hilarious. There were high-fives all around," Schorsch said.
Bennett said none of that happened.
• Schorsch said he then hired actors via craigslist to crash a news conference held by mayoral hopeful Bill Foster. He offered to pay them $10 for 15 minutes of work. Schorsch said Bennett applauded his efforts and reimbursed him in cash.
Bennett said he did not know about that shenanigan. But he said, he often reimbursed Schorsch for campaign expenses without details about what exactly was purchased.
Foster, reached Saturday, said he did not notice protestors at his event.
• Schorsch said he offered to pay a friend $100 to file ethics complaints against Foster and mayoral candidate Scott Wagman. Bennett said he was not involved.
Foster said he wound up with a $250 fine for an incomplete political disclaimer on a flier promoting a campaign event at Ferg's. Wagman, targeted for a similar offense, was cleared by the state. Foster said he knew Bennett's campaign was behind the complaint.
• Schorsch said he also hired people via craigslist to bolster crowds at two Bennett campaign events in March.
Bennett said Saturday he agreed to hire fillers because Schorsch wanted to photograph the events. The expenses were not included in a campaign finance report Bennett submitted to City Hall in April, which was supposed to cover expenses incurred through March.
Bennett said he would report the expenses in his next campaign finance report.
• Schorsch said he came up with the idea to "greaze with a z" neighborhood presidents and community leaders with baseball tickets after hearing Bennett offer tickets to St. Pete Beach Mayor Michael Finnerty, who agreed to endorse Bennett.
Finnerty said he offered his endorsement months before the April 19 Rays tickets were offered.
On Friday, a week after a Times story questioned Bennett's use of city baseball tickets, Bennett gave Coquina Key neighborhood president Torii Morgan tickets to a game.
Morgan said she told him she had concerns about his intentions. Bennett reassured her he would not even be at the game.
Bennett said he heard Schorsch use the term "greaze," but thought he was kidding. Bennett said council members are expected to use the tickets to recognize neighborhood leaders.
Riviera Bay Civic Neighborhood Association president David Hoover received Bennett baseball tickets for a May 15 game. "I didn't equate that at all to searching for votes or anything like that," he said, adding that he's been invited to games by other council members over the years.