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Hillsborough judge halts Democratic Party official's inquiry into candidate's finances

TAMPA — An attempt by Hills­borough County Democrats to force a Republican legislative candidate to produce bank records was halted Thursday by a judge.

"This is not a political forum," Circuit Court Judge Sam Pendino said before denying a motion filed by an attorney for Christopher Mitchell, vice chairman of the county Democratic Party.

Nancy Jacobs, Mitchell's attorney, had asked Pendino to approve a legal discovery process so James Grant, the GOP nominee in the District 47 state House race, could be questioned about a $40,000 personal loan he made to his campaign.

"We're seeking information for voters," she told Pendino. "This is a person who is running for office and he's going to spend our money."

Grant, the son of former state Sen. John Grant, will face Democrat Michael Steinberg on Nov. 2 in the race for a seat representing northwest Hillsborough.

Mitchell's lawsuit, as well as a complaint filed with the Florida Elections Commission, allege that Grant violated state law by accepting donations too close to the Aug. 24 primary election and incurring campaign expenses before he had the money to cover them.

Mitchell also raised questions about how Grant was able to loan his campaign $40,000 when his state-required financial disclosure forms show a net worth of negative $5,870.

Grant has said he accumulated assets over the year to collateralize a personal loan from First Citrus Bank that was used to bankroll his campaign.

But Mitchell alleges the bank loan is an illegal campaign contribution.

Attorneys for Grant, including his brother John Grant III, told Pendino that the matter belongs in the hands of the state ethics commission, not the courts.

The judge agreed.

"This is just a way to get the failing Steinberg campaign in the press," attorney John Grant III said after Pendino's ruling. "It's a political stunt that carries no weight."

Jacobs said she was disappointed by the judge's decision.

"It's not a stunt. We're here for the people, and clearly the people lost today," she said.

Pendino's ruling came the day after an appeals court reversed a lower court's decision to remove state Senate candidate Jim Norman from Tuesday's ballot because of irregularities in his financial disclosure forms.

When Mitchell filed his lawsuit last week, he cited the earlier decision in the Norman case as encouragement for his own legal proceedings.

Meanwhile, the Florida Elections Commission has agreed to investigate the charges that Grant accepted donations fewer than five days before the primary election as well as an allegation that he received a donation in excess of the $500 state limit.

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

Hillsborough judge halts Democratic Party official's inquiry into candidate's finances 10/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 12:34am]

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