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Accusations fly in race for District 58 state House seat

TAMPA — The mud is flying in the Democratic race for the District 58 state House seat.

Questions have been raised about who actually lives in the district — Pat Kemp does, but Janet Cruz and Gil Sanchez don't. Others have made a stink about who speaks fluent Spanish, a skill only Sanchez can claim as he runs to represent the heavily Hispanic district.

Kemp supporters have latched on to news that Cruz had real estate dealings with a man now serving 26 years in prison for mortgage fraud and have circulated reports that Cruz claims a homestead exemption on a house she doesn't live in.

And Cruz supporters have responded that Kemp, a lawyer, represented her husband when he was charged in 1999 with child neglect after pulling their then-6-year-old son from the family van and leaving him on Hillsborough Avenue near the Interstate 275 on-ramp.

Court records show that Kemp did briefly represent her husband, Randy Wynne, entering a not guilty plea in October 1999.

She later met with prosecutors, who offered pretrial intervention with anger management classes, according to court files. But Kemp pressed to have the charge dropped and told prosecutors that she and Wynne had voluntarily attended parenting classes.

"He wasn't even required to go," Kemp said. "I went to be supportive of my husband and our family."

When the State Attorney's Office continued to prosecute the felony case, the couple hired attorney Tracy Sheehan, now a judge, to represent Wynne.

"I never went to court on his behalf," Kemp said.

Sheehan filed a motion to dismiss in February 2000, arguing that Wynne was disciplining his child and there was "no evidence of cruelty or malicious intent."

The judge granted the motion to dismiss, but that was overturned by the 2nd District Court of Appeal. The case was reopened in Hillsborough Circuit Court. Wynne, program director at WMNF-FM 88.5, agreed to pretrial intervention, and the charge was dropped.

The incident occurred when the young boy refused to stop hitting a neighborhood child whom Wynne was driving home from school, according to court files. Kemp was not in the car.

Wynne told his son he would put him on the side of the road if he didn't stop the behavior, to which the child responded: "You make me." Finally, Wynne stopped the van at a red light, got out and pulled his son from the vehicle, leaving him by the road for about five minutes before returning to pick him up.

Wynne has had no legal troubles since then, and the family has put the ordeal behind them, Kemp said.

"It was a poor choice," Kemp said of Wynne's actions. "But I think it is pretty obvious from the way my kids are today that he's a great father, and our children are wonderfully cared for."

Their son is a junior at Hillsborough High School, and their daughter is a sophomore at Hampshire College.

"I am saddened that a decade-old family incident was raised because it has no bearing on the problems that we as a district face today," Kemp said in a prepared statement Thursday. "Unemployment, property taxes, foreclosures, inadequate education funding, oil drilling off the coast — the list is long. These are the things the citizens want us to focus on."

Meanwhile, Kemp supporters are making political hay out of a tax exemption Cruz has on a house she owns in South Tampa at 4114 W Empedrado St.

They charge that for years she has been improperly receiving a tax break on the property that's given for primary residences, even though it's not where she lives now.

When Cruz filed to run for the state House seat, she listed another South Tampa address, 5035 W San Miguel St. — the same one she uses on her voter registration. Candidates are not required to live in the district when running for office but must live in the district if they win the seat.

The house on San Miguel Street belongs to Stephen Rifkin, whom Cruz married in 2003. If Cruz lives with Rifkin, can she claim the Empedrado Street house, which she bought in the 1980s, as her primary residence and reap the tax benefit of a homestead exemption?

Not necessarily, said Will Shepherd, legal counsel for the county Property Appraiser's Office. Tax law recognizes Rifkin and Cruz as one family unit, he said, and each family unit typically gets tax benefits only for the house the members live in together.

Those benefits can be substantial because they include not just the homestead exemption that shields the first $50,000 of property value from taxation, but also the annual savings from the Save Our Homes amendment that limits the taxes on primary residences.

Together, those exemptions have saved Cruz nearly $20,000 in taxes since 2006. Cruz said she moved out of the house to live with Rifkin five years ago.

She said her 29-year-old son, Raymond, lives at the Empedrado Street house and that he's incapable of taking care of himself. She wouldn't describe his disability but said school officials certified him as disabled when he attended Hillsborough Community College.

Cruz said that because she pays all the bills for the house, it's her primary residence.

A 1982 Florida attorney general's opinion concluding that parents could get a homestead exemption for a house they don't occupy if they had a "dependent" child living there provides some support for her claim.

Shepherd said staff members in the Property Appraiser's Office will review the case. If they find that Cruz is in violation, she would pay more than $30,000 in fines for the tax savings since 2006. The burden will be on Cruz to show that her son is "dependent," Shepherd said.

"It's quite clear she's living with her husband," Shepherd said. "Question is: Is the son dependent on her? What does dependent mean? Unfortunately, there's no answer. I will guarantee you no one has defined what it means in black and white."

Cruz called the flap about her house a dirty political trick.

"This is just another smear by my opponent," Cruz said. "She's gone too far this time."

The special primary election for the District 58 state House seat representing Seminole Heights, West Tampa and parts of Town 'N Country is Tuesday. Democrat Michael Scionti resigned last month to take a Defense Department job.

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

Accusations fly in race for District 58 state House seat 01/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 12:08am]

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