Circuit court clerk candidate Dan Tipton lashed out Tuesday at his opponent, Chief Deputy Clerk Paula O'Neil, calling on her to stop accepting campaign contributions from her staff.
Tipton, a former mayor of New Port Richey, wants O'Neil, the No. 2 in the clerk's office, to return the money.
"I was amazed when I looked at her contributors' list," Tipton said. "It's something I would not do. It would be a conflict of interest to take contributions from people who work for me."
O'Neil issued a strong response after office hours Tuesday.
"The employees have done this freely and willingly," she said. "I haven't solicited contributions from anyone. For him to diminish people in this office by implying they have been forced, I think that's really insulting to their intelligence. We can contribute to political campaigns, that's how the American system works."
O'Neil has collected $3,880 in about 93 campaign contributions from her colleagues, according to a review of her campaign finance reports.
That includes $500 from her boss, Jed Pittman, and $500 from court services director Rosalyn Fenton. Other contributions mostly ranged from $10 to $40.
Her total funding is about $35,000 so far, putting her comfortably ahead of Tipton, who reported $26,270 in the last quarter.
Tipton said several clerk's office employees told him they were uncomfortable with the idea of campaign contributions solicited by their superiors. He called the practice "a culture of cronyism in the clerk's office," and repeated campaign promises to reform the office if elected, though he also added he does not plan staff cuts.
In an interview with the Pasco Times, he stopped short of accusing O'Neil of pressuring her colleagues for donations.
Does O'Neil plan to return the contributions, as Tipton demanded?
"Absolutely not," O'Neil said. "I'm proud that the employees, as well as other citizens of Pasco County, have supported me and contributed to my campaign. ... The public has been served well (by my office), and we are proud of how we are benchmarked."
The two Republicans are competing to replace Pittman, who's retiring. A third candidate, Democrat Robert Altman, didn't respond to a call for comment Tuesday.
Employees in other public offices also have given money to their elected bosses' campaigns. Property Appraiser Mike Wells, Sheriff Bob White and schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino, are among those who have accepted donations from employees.
"I wonder if he's questioning their ethics, too?" O'Neil said Tuesday, of Tipton.
The intra-party clash Tuesday didn't draw a comment from Pasco County GOP chairman Bill Bunting. Bunting is on the Committee to Elect Dan Tipton, but he's avoided formally endorsing Tipton or openly criticizing O'Neil.
"That's between them," he said Tuesday. "I wouldn't have anything to do with that. If I were an employee, I'd be reluctant to give money. It just becomes a conflict of interest. But if she's comfortable with that, that's all right."
Bunting said he'll bring up the issue with both candidates at a scheduled dinner Tuesday evening.
"This will not be an easy primary season," Bunting said, sighing.
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