Les Miller, running against incumbent Kevin White for the Hillsborough County Commission, opened the letter from the U.S. Navy Veterans Association, a nonprofit charity he knew nothing about.
The letter bore the seal of the association and was signed by its director of development, Bobby Thompson, and its content "endorsed'' by the group's secretary, Brian Reagan. It was not a mass mailing, but a singular message aimed at Miller.
"Dear Senator Miller," the Navy Veterans letter began. It said the St. Petersburg Times had launched a racist attack against Kevin White, "who intends to serve honorably, articulately, forcefully and intelligently," and "without any private inurement or benefit to himself."
Now is the time, the letter said, "for our black leaders of a certain age" to throw their support to White, because the Times is trying to grind him "into the dust, and maybe even sponsor criminal charges against him."
Miller, a former senator, knows that certified charities are supposed to stay out of political races, and here was a letter from a charity Miller believed was asking him to abandon his candidacy. "I was sort of shocked," said Miller. "I thought, they want me to drop out of the race and support Kevin. I could not figure why they would send me this on their letterhead. It really looked official."
Thompson said in an interview a few days before his Sept. 3 letter to Miller that the Navy Veterans Association is nonpartisan; it never throws its support to particular candidates.
But to Miller, Thompson's letter sounded purely political. Said Miller: "They were asking me to rally around Kevin.''
The letter to Miller has its roots in interviews the Times conducted with Thompson in August.
In White's campaigns for Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission, he repeatedly boasted about his military service. But the Times obtained discharge papers that showed White enlisted in the Navy "in error'' at age 17 and was discharged after 56 days.
The newspaper asked White and Thompson about a $500 campaign contribution from the Navy Veterans, a group White said supported him.
White initially said the Navy Veterans Association gave his campaign a $500 check and said he was "99 percent certain" the nonprofit endorsed him in a previous campaign.
No, Thompson said, the Navy Veterans Association did not endorse White, nor did the group donate the $500 because the nonprofit never contributes to politicians.
Thompson said the check came from him personally. Asked if he had a canceled check showing that, Thompson said he did not.
After those interviews, Thompson said he and White conferred. The next day, both said the $500 was a money order from Thompson. White said his campaign treasurer — his mother — entered it erroneously as being from the Navy Veterans because the money order was sent with Thompson's Navy Veterans business card attached.
The Times published a story Aug. 28 about White's abbreviated Navy career and Thompson's $500 contribution.
Five days later, Thompson sent his letter to Miller, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served 14 years in the Florida Legislature. Now director of the community relations office at the University of South Florida, Miller is trying to unseat White on the County Commission.
Thompson's letter included a notation that he had sent copies to the Times, the Tampa Tribune, WEDU-Ch. 3 and "others."
Thompson said the Times' story about White's Navy service was a racist attack on an up-and-coming black politician and was "slanted" by the reporter "to line his own pockets, line the pockets of the editors of the St. Petersburg Times, and line the pockets of the white publishers of the St. Petersburg Times."
The slant, according to Thompson's letter, was the newspaper's attempt to show that "White and Thompson criminally conspired to create a fake Navy veterans organization" to boost White's candidacy. Thompson's letter urged Miller to "coalesce around somebody who is being attacked by a process which has more than the mere wisp of racism in the air."
Miller believed he was being lobbied by a supposedly nonpartisan organization to "drop out of the race" and support White.
"That's the way I took it," Miller said. "They intervened, as far as I'm concerned.''
Marc Owens, a lawyer who helped regulate nonprofits as a division head at the IRS (and currently represents the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times), said that if a nonprofit group like the Navy Veterans tried to intervene in a political contest, it could trigger taxation of funds spent on the political activity.
Reacting to those comments, the Navy Veterans e-mailed a series of responses purported to have come from Reagan, the executive who also signed Thompson's letter to Miller. (The Times could not find Reagan in searches over six months.)
Initially, Reagan said there was no statement in the letter to Miller, implied or otherwise, that he should abandon his candidacy and support White.
A second e-mail from Reagan said Thompson was expressing only his own opinion, and he was urging the black community — not Miller — to stand up for White against the newspaper's attempt to "kick this guy when he was down."
Finally, Reagan offered that any discussion of the Miller letter was out of bounds because although copied to two newspapers and a TV station, it was not a public record — because the Navy Veterans never said it was.
Reagan wrote: "Our analysis is that a communication made to a news agency does not necessarily mean that the communication is a matter of public record, unless the intent of the communicator is clearly and reasonably known to be such.''