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Maurice Wappler, a political candidate's worst nightmare, dies at 61

ST. PETERSBURG — Maurice Wappler did not like politicians. He said so many times, then proved it with a flood of complaints filed over the years for what many considered picayune elections violations.

The infractions he cited ranged from the tiniest details — such as failing to place the word "for" between a candidate's name and office sought — to more serious rule-breaking like over-the-limit campaign contributions.

Incumbents who tried to recycle yard signs, omitting the prefix "Re-" before the word "elect," were sure to hear from the Florida Elections Commission and possibly be fined, thanks to Mr. Wappler.

Some politicians were outraged. Others, including some of his targets, said he was performing a public service. The man feared by many local and county politicians lived alone and ran a street sweeper on the graveyard shift.

Mr. Wappler, dubbed the "Gotcha Guy" for the string of annoyances he visited on officials, died at home March 5, his family said. He was 61.

He took on everyone, from City Council candidates to Gov. Charlie Crist. In 2006 he dinged state Rep. Rick Kriseman, then a candidate, for this wording on a campaign sign: "Political advertisement. Paid for and approved by Rick Kriseman."

State rules mandate that wording, but say nothing about the period after "advertisement."

Candidates often complained of feeling blindsided after they were cited for failing to disclose their political affiliations on campaign signs or to list every donor's occupation on financial reports.

Mr. Wappler tried to show respect for the people whose records he searched so exhaustively. If he found a violation of the rules, he called or emailed to let the candidate know what was coming.

"A couple of times he called me out on some stuff," said St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton. "I'm not above that."

Mr. Wappler scoured public records and monitored campaign literature with an eagle eye. A Republican, he reported members of both parties.

"I'll bust anybody, I don't care," he told the Times five years ago. "When the candidates are running for office and they don't even follow the election laws, why would you vote for them?"

Norm Roche, who wrote a letter to the Times in support of Mr. Wappler's activism two years before winning a seat on the Pinellas County Commission, met Mr. Wappler and "found him to be quite engaging."

Maurice Henry Wappler was born in 1951 on the Rhode Island peninsula of Quonset Point, near the naval base where his father worked. The family moved to St. Petersburg in the mid 1960s.

He joined the Army but tore up his knee and had to leave, said Babette Wappler, his sister.

He dated but never married. He was on the heavy side but took daily 10-mile walks and was physically strong.

"I've seen him pick up a regular sized washing machine all by himself, pick it up and put it on the back of a pickup truck," said Fred Wappler, his father, 86.

He worked for several county departments over 33 years.

While working as a nursing assistant for the health department, he was passed over for a promotion. "He was hurt by that," his father said.

That's when Mr. Wappler's investigations into politicians picked up, his family said.

Most recently he operated a street sweeper over Pinellas County's main roads, covering 780 curb miles every three weeks.

"He was just so good that he could do better than any contract person we could get," said Dana Land, a field operations supervisor for the Department of Environment and Infrastructure.

He planned to retire at 62. He would relax, maybe travel to see his goddaughters.

Mr. Wappler recently told his sister he was tired. She took him to a clinic, then to the drugstore. He said he was going to unplug his phone and get some rest. His family checked on him a few days later when he did not show up for work. They found him on his couch, unresponsive.

Newton said he plans to read a personal tribute at Mr. Wappler's funeral Thursday, comparing him to other longtime watchdogs such as Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter and Emily Rogers Coeyman, who sat in City Council meetings for 45 years before her death in 2008.

"He was very focused, to say the least," Newton said. "Some people didn't like that. But, hey, it's the law."

>>Biography

Maurice Henry Wappler

Born: May 23, 1951

Died: March 5, 2013

Survivors: father, Frederick Wappler; and sister, Babette Wappler.

Service: 10 a.m. Thursday; St. Paul's Catholic Church, 1800 12th St. N.

Maurice Wappler, a political candidate's worst nightmare, dies at 61 03/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 11:20pm]
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