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State House 55 candidate loses control of her own campaign website

ST. PETERSBURG — Two websites are not better than one. State house candidate April Sheffield is learning that the hard way.

She lost control of her campaign website — www.aprilsheffield.com — in her bid to unseat Rep. Darryl Rouson in the Aug. 24 Democratic primary because of a dispute over an unpaid bill.

She launched a new site — www.vote4aprilsheffield.com — but the old one continues to appear higher in a Google search of her name.

The old site also is causing problems for her with the Florida Elections Commission. She paid a $250 fine to settle a complaint because it didn't have proper disclosures, but more have been filed.

"I had a contributor call me and say he wasn't going to give me any money because there were three misspelled words," she said of the original site, "and there's an ugly a-- picture of me. I tried to get them to take it down, and they refused."

Sheffield, a Sarasota businesswoman, is challenging Rouson, 55, a St. Petersburg lawyer who was first elected in 2008. There is no Republican challenger, so the winner of the primary goes to Tallahassee. District 55 includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Sheffield, 42, said she commissioned the website from St. Petersburg-based Realizing Media, but never gave it final approval. She had several issues, including the amount of the final bill, that weren't resolved before she and the company parted ways.

The site doesn't list her party affiliation, what office she's running for or who paid for it — all violations of state rules on campaign disclosures. The Elections Commission would not comment on pending complaints.

However, a violation has to be "willful," according to state rules. The commission will have to determine whether Sheffield should be held liable for a site she no longer controls. Sheffield said she wrote a letter to the commission to explain the problem.

Nick Hinckley of Realizing Media said the site was built using information supplied by the Sheffield campaign. So why aren't the proper disclaimers up?

"That's called fraud," he said. "She neither paid for nor approved the site. If I were to put it up there, I would be at fault."

Sheffield said their dispute started because the company tried to cash her first payment check despite a request to wait until some fundraising deposits cleared.

"The next thing I know the bill goes from $337.88" to $1,952.88, Sheffield said, adding: "They upped the bill to get back at me."

Hinckley disputes that, saying they were never asked not to cash it. He said the campaign also reneged on a payment plan. Sheffield said she offered to pay but told them she had to settle up with the Elections Commission first.

"You know my campaign funds are limited," she said she told them. "I'm going to pay my fine first before I pay any of you all."

Hinckley said he will take the site down if Sheffield is willing to talk about a financial settlement.

As of now, he said, all Sheffield has done is send a certified letter listing demands he would not reveal. Both accuse the other of not returning calls.

Sheffield has complained that there's a political agenda behind her web woes, that Hinckley's company is linked to a former campaign worker. Hinckley denied that, saying he just wants to get his labor costs back.

Sheffield also thinks the Elections Commission complaints are politically motivated. Local blogger Peter Schorsch reported her, she said, because he supports Rouson.

Schorsch said he's an "independent blogger" who will vote for Rouson. Schorsch also said he's actually filed other complaints against the Sheffield campaign, just as he has against other candidates.

He does it, he said, to teach politicians that they should hire experienced political help in elections. Schorch himself has been fined more than $60,000 by the commission.

State House 55 candidate loses control of her own campaign website 07/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 6:44pm]
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