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Seminole resident questions ethics of mayor's votes

SEMINOLE — A local business owner has filed a complaint with state ethics officials alleging that Mayor Jimmy Johnson broke Florida laws by voting on issues involving the Seminole Chamber of Commerce while also serving as the organization's executive director.

Tom Rask laid out his complaints in an April 1 letter he sent to the state Ethics Commission asking it to decide whether Johnson misused his public position and had a conflict of interest when he failed to excuse himself from voting on the city budget and other items designed to provide money to the chamber.

Johnson, who resigned from his chamber position last summer, said he had not seen the complaint but denied any wrongdoing. Johnson said he had recused himself from the votes.

City Manager Frank Edmunds says records show Johnson abstained from voting on a business program Rask has questioned.

Johnson pointed to a 2003 ruling from the Ethics Commission that, he said, exonerated him from a similar complaint. Rask said the ruling did not find the mayor innocent but merely said Johnson wouldn't be penalized because he had followed the advice of the city attorney in not recusing himself. The commission also cautioned Johnson to refrain from voting on any item that directed money at the chamber.

Rask, who lives in unincorporated Seminole, said he began wondering about the relationship between elected city officials and the chamber when he read a news story about the group sending out a flier advertising a fundraiser for Seminole council member Leslie Waters. Waters was running for the state Senate. The flier was one of many the chamber sends out monthly that provide information about members' businesses and happenings in the area.

It appeared, Rask said, as if the chamber was promoting the candidacy and agendas of City Council members who would then favor the chamber when tax money is handed out.

In reaction, Rask called for the resignation of all council members and City Attorney John Elias in an email. He later appeared before the council and called for Johnson and Elias to resign.

He also asked the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the chamber's tax-exempt status.

"I want the chamber to stop this, not engage in political activities," he said.

If the chamber wants to support candidates or officials, he said, the group should do it correctly by forming a political action committee separate from its daily activities.

"They haven't followed the rules on a number of fronts," Rask said.

The chamber was closed Friday, and officials could not be reached for comment.

Rask, 47, owns Logical Sites Inc., an Internet publishing company. He lists "accountability in government" as one of his personal interests on his website, rask.com.

A self-described "right-leaning independent," he said he was the first to donate to Norm Roche's campaign for the Pinellas County Commission. Roche won.

Rask denies any ties with any Seminole council members and says he knows nothing of their political leanings. But that doesn't matter, he said. When he sees things are wrong, Rask said he feels compelled to speak out.

"I fight these things I think are wrong," he said.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Seminole resident questions ethics of mayor's votes 04/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 7, 2012 4:31am]
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