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State elections panel borrows nitpicker's microscope

"Mr. Gotcha" may seem a bit picky, but he apparently has a point. Several of them.

The Florida Elections Commission has told him it will investigate four of the five Pinellas Park candidates he accused of violating state election laws. His complaint against the fifth candidate, Mayor Bill Mischler, was found to be "legally insufficient," but Mr. Gotcha has until March 19 to amend.

The alleged violations include failing to have signatures on financial declaration forms, accepting a contribution that exceeds the legal cap, and planting campaign signs that missed a word or that didn't have a word in the proper place.

Mr. Gotcha is Maurice Wappler, a St. Petersburg resident whose hobby is the scrutiny of campaign literature, signs and financial declaration forms for anything he thinks violates Florida's election laws. He has said he began his hobby because he dislikes all politicians and thinks that if they can't get the basic requirements right, they probably will be equally sloppy when it comes to bigger issues.

Wappler, who refuses to be photographed, has pursued candidates at all levels and from all parties, including Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and Democrat Charlie Justice, the state senator who represents St. Petersburg.

This year, he turned his attention to Pinellas Park, where 10 candidates vied for three offices. Wappler reported five of them — Mischler, who was running for re-election, and Mary Brennan, Patricia Johnson, Ed Kosinski and Jerry Mullins, who were all running for Seat 4 on the council. (For election results, check the Times Metro section).

The Elections Commission told Wappler that it found some of his allegations against Brennan, Johnson, Kosinski and Mullins to be "legally sufficient."

Among his allegations against Brennan, Johnson and Mullins were accusations that they had mistakes in their financial declaration forms. The Elections Commission directed Wappler to let their campaigns know of the problems so they would have a chance to correct them.

The commission has written letters to the four, giving them a chance to pay a fine and sign a document in which they neither admit nor deny wrongdoing. The candidates can choose to fight the charges, but they risk higher fines.

Wappler declined to comment until after the Elections Commission makes a final determination. Mullins declined to comment until after the election.

Kosinski was accused, among other things, of having signs that did not display the word "for" between his name and the office he sought, and that the signs had "pol. adv. PD for" rather than writing out "political advertising paid," as required by law.

Kosinski conceded Tuesday that he'd made mistakes but said he had corrected them and let the state know.

"It's a gray area on the violations," Kosinski said. "It's a little confusing in the book the way it's written."

Kosinski suggested that the state needs to rewrite the rules to be more clear. If the rules were written better, he said, there would not have been so many candidates who ran into problems.

Kosinski had harsh words for Wappler, saying he is not the upstanding citizen he appears to be. Wappler failed to report one of the council candidates whose signs were also wrong, Kosinski said. The complaints that Wappler filed were dirty politics designed to make that one candidate look good at the expense of others, Kosinski said. Because of that, Kosinski said Wappler's opinions have no weight with him.

"You're all trying to blow this up to be the crime of the century. It's not," Kosinski said. "Nobody did anything vicious here. Nobody did anything deliberately."

Brennan agreed that the state needs to rewrite the rules to make them more clear. She said she plans to fight rather than pay $250 to make the issue disappear. By fighting, she risks fines of up to $1,000 for each infraction.

Brennan's literature had a disclaimer saying the "advertising" was paid for by her campaign. The word should have been "advertisement." She said she had to read the rule four times to figure out the alleged error.

"I disagree that I violated the section," she said. "I have substantially the same exact disclaimer."

Additionally, Brennan did not list a political affiliation but pointed out that the race was nonpartisan and that elsewhere in the election code, candidates are banned from mentioning parties in nonpartisan races. It's a classic Catch-22, she said.

Johnson said she, too, plans to fight the allegations. She also got caught by the nonpartisan issue. Candidates, she said, were told not to mention political parties.

Johnson disagreed with Kosinski about Wappler's activities.

"I think it's wonderful that we have watchdogs," Johnson said.

Mischler said Tuesday that he had corrected his financial forms and was sorry the mistakes had been made.

Like Kosinski, he had harsh words for Mr. Gotcha: "Mr. Wappler, he needs to get a job. There must be other things he can be doing than to spend time nitpicking people."

State elections panel borrows nitpicker's microscope 03/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 11, 2008 3:57pm]
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