Thursday, September 20, 2018
Politics

Cash for coverage? Questions arise about local political blogger Peter Schorsch

ST. PETERSBURG — In Florida's power circles, politicos say dealing with well-connected blogger Peter Schorsch often comes down to the money.

Want to garner his favor or avoid his wrath? Buy an ad.

Want him to write a flattering story or remove a negative post he already wrote? Buy an ad.

According to five people active in politics, Schorsch, 37, has tried to pressure them for hundreds or thousands of dollars in exchange for good stories or the deletion of bad ones.

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long and former state Rep. Frank Farkas are among those who say Schorsch tried to trade coverage for money. Three accusers provided documentation and one, Michael Pinson, offered a notarized contract signed by Schorsch.

Since the Tampa Bay Times started asking questions early this month, a 2½-year-old dormant criminal investigation into Schorsch based on some of these claims has been renewed, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

Schorsch, in an interview accompanied by his attorney, vehemently denied ever having a "quid pro quo" relationship with clients but acknowledged offering to remove negative content from his site, saintpetersblog.com, in exchange for money.

"It is absolutely to a candidate's benefit to advertise on my site," he said. "Being on my radar screen is a very good thing."

On Thursday, the Times contacted Gualtieri, one of many politicians who have paid Schorsch for services, including advertising (the sheriff gave him $2,400 during his 2012 election bid). A reporter read excerpts from documents in which Schorsch asked for money from politicos in exchange for the removal of negative stories he had written.

"Wow. Wow," the sheriff said. "If all that's true, that's crazy."

Schorsch's primary platform is saintpetersblog.com, which earlier this year the Washington Post named one of the best state-based political blogs in the country. He is a member of Florida's Capitol Press Corps but also has said at times he is not a journalist. He often criticizes the Times in his blog, though since the Times began questioning his practices he announced that he would stop and would disclose when the subjects of his blog items were clients.

Schorsch's past includes pleas of no contest to grand theft and scheming to defraud charges six years ago and outstanding fines of nearly $68,000 owed to the Florida Elections Commission. Still, he wields considerable influence on the local and state political scene.

More than a half-dozen people contacted by the Times declined to comment on Schorsch, several saying they feared retribution.

The reinvigorated criminal inquiry into Schorsch stems from accusations made by Pinson, a Republican activist who over the last three years Schorsch has frequently criticized and mocked online. Pinson supplied a contract to the Times that Schorsch had presented him in May 2012. In it, Schorsch requested that Pinson pay him $3,200 in order for the blogger to delete all references to Pinson from his websites — and to write nothing more about him for the following three years.

The contract called for a $1,000 bonus if anything Schorsch wrote about Pinson didn't appear in the first 30 online search results.

The contract is notarized and signed by Schorsch. The Times met with the notary, who confirmed its legitimacy.

Schorsch said his attorney drew up the contract but said it was at Pinson's request. Schorsch said the activist had repeatedly harassed him and his family.

He said he offered the deal "just so this insane lunatic of a person would go away."

Pinson, who was mentioned for an open Pinellas congressional seat, said he didn't pay Schorsch, and the attacks continued. Just three months later, in a Twitter exchange with someone Schorsch seemed to believe Pinson knew, Schorsch said this: "Tell Michael I said hi. Just think for 5K he could've made all of this go away. Wait till u see 'The Douchebag Returns' story."

Schorsch acknowledged the tweet but said the recipient was "a fake Twitter account established to harass my family."

Pinson first complained to the Sheriff's Office in summer 2011. He alleged that Schorsch was harassing him on the Internet. Investigators didn't think there was enough evidence then, Gualtieri said Thursday.

But last year, Pinson said, he shared the contract with investigators. Gualtieri said he had no knowledge of it until Pinson emailed it to him hours before the sheriff spoke to the Times on Thursday. "We'll go back at it again and if there is something there, we'll take care of business," the sheriff said.

Schorsch said he is not concerned about the investigation.

Both Frank Farkas and Janet Long — each of whom Schorsch has sharply criticized through the years — said he targeted them for money.

Around October 2012, then-state House candidate Farkas said Schorsch called him. The blogger told him he would carefully screen what content related to Farkas appeared on his site if the politician signed an ad contract. "We didn't sign and I got what I expected: one-sided, slanted," Farkas said. "He stabs so many people in the back, and he continues to get away with it."

Long described a similar experience during her 2012 County Commission run. Like Farkas, she didn't pay Schorsch, but denying him made her nervous, she said, saying: "You don't need to be out there incurring the wrath of someone like him because he's a loose cannon."

Schorsch brushed off their allegations as criticism from longtime political opponents.

David McKalip, a neurosurgeon who lost a bid for City Council this year, shared with the Times a Jan. 9 email exchange with Schorsch.

Schorsch asked McKalip if he planned to renew his ad subscription. McKalip said he would consider it but also felt some of what Schorsch had written about him was unfair.

"If you want to send me a list of stories you find objectionable, I'll take them down," Schorsch responded, "so long as you renew your ad package."

"I do not seek or engage in such arrangements," responded McKalip, who writes his own blog, sunbeamtimes.com.

Schorsch acknowledged the offer on Friday, but said, "I don't consider that a quid pro quo."

According to campaign finance reports, McKalip paid Schorsch's company $1,125. "He should be out of business," McKalip said.

Two years ago, political consultant Vincent Harris was involved in Gov. Rick Scott's campaign. In summer 2011, Harris sent a direct message to Schorsch on Twitter asking why the blogger had been so critical of Harris' company.

"Just trying to get your attention," Schorsch replied, adding he had been told "a long time ago you all would be advertising, sending business, never heard a thing."

"He was essentially asking me for money," Harris said. "And if I didn't give him money, he was going to write nasty things about me or my client. There is no other way to take that."

Schorsch said Harris had broken a promise to buy ads with him but insisted that had nothing to do with his coverage. He also said Harris thought the mere offer would "make things go away," which Schorsch called "reverse extortion."

Two of Schorsch's staunchest and most powerful supporters — state Sens. Jeff Brandes and Jack Latvala — said he had never offered to provide them favorable coverage in exchange for money but did say they would reconsider dealing with him if the allegations proved accurate.

"That would be very disappointing, and that would give me great pause. Great pause," said Latvala, who has frequently sent business to Schorsch.

Brandes, who has paid Schorsch more than $27,000 since 2010, said he would have "grave concerns." When asked if he had previously heard that Schorsch exploited politicians for money, he said: "I'm not going to talk on the record about that."

Former Gov. Charlie Crist also has ties to Schorsch. His wife, Michelle Todd, worked for him when he was governor. Schorsch helped organize Crist's Nov. 4 gubernatorial announcement in St. Petersburg. "This is pretty simple," Crist said in a voice mail. "Michelle is just a longtime personal friend and obviously married Peter and that's kind of it."

Since 2010, according to campaign finance reports, Schorsch and his companies have received more than $180,000 from city, county, judicial, state and U.S. congressional candidates, including Pinellas County Chairman Ken Welch ($758) and House Speaker Will Weatherford ($1,200). Both bought advertising. When a consultant last year asked Welch in a Facebook message why he would advertise with Schorsch, the commissioner wrote: "how do you quantify keeping the peace?"

This week, Welch said that didn't mean he was paying for favorable coverage but acknowledged that if Schorsch "is a political enemy of yours, he can make life very difficult."

Times researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]

   
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