Monday, July 16, 2018

St. Petersburg City Council candidate Corey Givens Jr. deposited $500 campaign check in his personal checking account (by mistake, he says)

ST. PETERSBURG — Corey Givens Jr. flamed out of a Pinellas County School Board race five years ago after inflating his educational resume.

When he announced in January that he was running to replace Karl Nurse on the City Council, he said he had learned from his mistake.

Now Givens stands accused of another failing: a donor said he deposited a $500 campaign donation into his personal checking account.

The donor, Lucinda Johnston, a prominent local Democratic activist, said she filed a complaint May 31 with the Florida Elections Commission. She is also considering contacting the police.

Givens said he mistakenly deposited Johnston's donation into his checking account. After realizing his error, he said he asked his then-campaign consultant, Tom Alte, for advice. He said Alte told him to give $500 in cash to Johnston, which Givens said he did a few days later.

"That is a total lie," Johnston said when told Givens' version of events.

Johnston, 64, who befriended the 25-year-old Givens a couple of years ago through local party organizations, said she's deeply disappointed in him.

And she said Givens has not returned her money.

Givens did not provide the Tampa Bay Times with evidence that he gave Johnston her money back. He did not offer any evidence — a receipt, an email or a text — confirming his version of events.

When the Times first contacted Givens about Johnston's complaint, he said he mixed the donation check with personal checks when making a bank deposit. Later, he said he deposited Johnston's check by mistake while depositing cash.

But he vowed to stay in the District 6 race, which currently has nine candidates vying to succeed Nurse, who is leaving at the end of the year because of term limits. The other candidates are: Justin Bean, Eritha "Akile" Cainion, Gina Driscoll, James Jackson, Ziya Kardis, Sharon Russ, James Scott and Maria Scruggs.

"I'm not going down without a fight," Givens said.

During the 2012 school board race, Givens claimed to have an associate's degree from St. Petersburg College, a bachelor's degree from Florida State University and that he was pursuing a master's degree at the University of South Florida.

Officials at all three schools told the Times none of those claims were true.

In recent years, Givens has been has been active in local Democratic politics and city and neighborhood groups. When he announced his candidacy in January, he touted his service on the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area Community Advisory Committee, the City Beautiful Commission and his presidency of the Lakewood Terrace Neighborhood Association.

Through April, records show he had raised $9,304 for his campaign.

Johnston said she found out he hadn't deposited the check in his campaign account when she checked his campaign finance filings in late May. She said she did so to determine if she could legally donate more money to his campaign.

Alte said Givens tried to give him five $100 bills at some point in February, saying it was a donation from Johnston. Alte said he told Givens to give the money back, because state law prohibits cash donations over $50.

Alte said he broke ties with Givens in March when he said he found out that Givens was acting unethically with a donor. He said his confidentiality agreement as a campaign consultant barred him from going into more detail.

Givens said Alte left because he wanted to raise his fees and Givens couldn't pay him.

Now, Givens contends Alte — whose wife, Meagan Salisbury, is managing the campaign of a rival District 6 candidate, Driscoll — wants to drive him out of the council race.

And Johnston, he claimed, is trying to frame him because he won't endorse Mayor Rick Kriseman in his re-election bid.

"That's a pretty strong accusation to make without any proof," said Alte, who is also serving as the campaign finance director for Kriseman's campaign.

Johnston said Givens' story was "ludricous."

"Corey's accusation that I would commit a crime in order to get a candidate who has never held elected office to endorse the current mayor is not only untrue but is the latest in a line of ridiculous lies dating back to the last time he ran for office," Johnston said.

The Kriseman campaign declined to comment.

Givens also drew a parallel to this campaign finance controversy and another that arose in the 2015 City Council race between current council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Will Newton. Wheeler-Bowman's former campaign consultant, Nick Janovsky, accused her of spending $500 in campaign funds on emergency dental work.

Wheeler-Bowman admitted her mistake and amended her report. She said Janovsky had advised her to withdraw the money. Janovsky denied that.

Alte joined the Wheeler-Bowman (she was Lisa Wheeler-Brown then) campaign after the money was spent and worked to salvage her race. She ended up beating Newton.

Givens said Alte's involvement in his campaign, and his involvement in the Wheeler-Bowman race, which both faced questions of improper use of campaign funds, is not a coincidence.

"It's like deja vu," Givens said.

Alte said the two incidents cannot be compared.

"In one instance, we had a candidate who made a mistake, admitted it and rectified it," Alte said. "The mistake was in the advice she received.

"In the other instance, the candidate put the money in his personal checking account and then had multiple versions of a story that did not pan out."

Wheeler-Bowman had endorsed Givens in his race. She sent a text to the Times saying she has since withdrawn her support.

"When I learned that Corey had broken our trust and hurt those who tried to help him, I told him that I was rescinding my endorsement."

Editor's Note: Campaign consultant Nick Janovsky's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]

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