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Tampa car dealer won't be charged in employees' campaign contributions

TAMPA — Employees of auto dealer Jason Kuhn told state investigators that he asked them to donate to a Tampa City Council candidate's campaign and later reimbursed them, according to an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

State law makes it a felony to give multiple campaign contributions through others. But the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office will not file criminal charges, saying it did not appear Kuhn knowingly broke the law.

"We looked at it and said, 'He won't do that again. He's learned his lesson,' " said Wayne Chalu, supervisor of the office's economic crime unit.

That's not good enough for the man who helped prompt the investigation by alerting the FDLE.

Richard Reavis said he'll take the matter to the Florida Elections Commission.

"It's a miscarriage of justice," Reavis said. "All they say is, 'That's okay, don't do it at again.' If it were me, they would prosecute to the full extent of the law. But because he's 'somebody,' they let it go."

A St. Petersburg Times analysis published in January 2007 revealed that City Council candidate Julie Brown collected at least $20,000 from Kuhn, his employees at Kuhn Honda-Volkswagen and their relatives, some of whom lived outside the voting district. Most gave the maximum allowable contribution of $500.

According to the FDLE report, Kuhn and his comptroller, Carol Van Scoik, asked multiple employees for donations to fund Brown's challenge to incumbent John Dingfelder in the March 2007 city election. Many employees were reimbursed in cash.

Kuhn and Van Scoik later asked some employees to return the money, but Van Scoik told one "that she would receive it back in the year-end bonus," according to FDLE documents. The investigation showed two employees who returned the money to Kuhn later received year-end bonuses that covered the amount of the donations.

Chalu said his office concluded that Kuhn was unfamiliar with politics, and after he discovered his actions may be illegal, he stopped handing out the refunds and asked for some of them back.

When the Times asked about the contributions in January 2007, Kuhn said, "We don't tell our employees who to give money to."

He described his employees as simply "very loyal and very passionate."

Kuhn declined to comment on the matter Monday.

"I haven't seen anything from the state attorney or the FDLE," he said. "Until I see something, I can't comment."

Jed Thomas, an elections law attorney in Tampa, said prosecuting violations of campaign finance rules requires that the defendant knowingly broke the law.

"It's a very high standard," he said but then added: "If they gave the bonuses, that's a little odd to me. That would seem problematic."

Dingfelder, who won the 2007 race, said he doesn't want to second-guess the State Attorney's Office but noted that the Florida Elections Commission may see the case differently.

"This is not just about my race," he said. "This law applies to all races and it should be upheld."

In late 2006, Dingfelder was one of a majority of council members to vote against a request by Kuhn to tear down a shopping plaza on Kennedy Boulevard and build a used-car lot.

Dingfelder had originally supported the proposal, then changed his mind after hearing neighborhood opposition and driving by the site himself.

In 2007, Brown told the Times said she was unaware of how much she had received from Kuhn but said she made no promises to any donors.

In deciding not to file charges, the State Attorney's Office also considered that employees interviewed said they were not coerced to donate, Chalu said.

"Many said they wanted to contribute to the candidate anyway," he said.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Tampa car dealer won't be charged in employees' campaign contributions 03/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 31, 2008 1:36pm]
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