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Heartfelt mailings touting a District 45 candidate may have violated election law

Betty took a blue pen, a piece of ripped-out notebook paper and began her plea to a Pasco voter she's never met.

"This is a first for me. I have never written a letter like this before," she wrote in the small, careful cursive of a grandmother. "A friend of mine is named Fabian Calvo and he is running for the Florida House of Representatives in this district."

She went on to state Calvo's attributes — he's a businessman, good dad, puts America first — and ended with her request:

"I hope you will vote for him."

Signed, Betty.

No last name, no return address on the envelope, no disclaimer.

Betty's letter simply carried a personal, authentic touch — with no small amount of political strategy.

Hers was one of around 120 handwritten letters — all based on an agreed-upon template — that volunteers for the Calvo campaign sent out recently to Republican voters in District 45, which covers parts of Pasco and Pinellas counties.

Calvo faces Richard Corcoran and Kathryn Starkey in the closed Republican primary for the open seat.

About 2,000 more letters are written and ready to go, said Wilna Varley, a 70-year-old Largo retiree who volunteers for Calvo.

"We fashioned up this letter and I gathered up people who like him," said Varley. "Nothing came out of Fabian's campaign. Not one of his dimes went into it. I want to make that clear."

But what isn't clear is whether the mailings met the letter of the law, which says political advertisements must carry who-paid-for-this type disclaimers and appear on expense reports.

"That could be an issue," said Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, whose wife received one of the letters.

Calvo said Friday he had thought the letters written on his behalf didn't need a disclaimer in the same way that volunteer phone calls do not require disclaimers. A first-time political candidate, he blamed the mistakes on the nature of his campaign, which he called "about as grass roots as it gets."

"I knew the letters were being sent out. I didn't know they needed a disclaimer," he said. "If it's something that needs to be corrected, we'll do it immediately."

Calvo said that he and some volunteers met at his parents' home about six months ago. Everyone wrote up short essays about why they supported him, and the campaign combined all those letters into one standard letter.

"There's no question when we did it that everybody wrote 'Why Fabian should be elected' and it was compiled into one letter," he said. "But since then it has taken off. I really don't have anything to do with it.

"Betty? I don't know who she is."

Betty is Varley's neighbor. Varley said she told the volunteers, some of them senior citizens, not to sign their last names or put their return addressees in case they might get harassed.

"People can be so nasty," said Varley.

Varley doesn't live in District 45. She met Calvo at a Republican club meeting a few years back. When he got in the race, she decided she wanted to help him get elected.

"We're just an outside rag-tag group that likes him," she said. "We're a group of concerned citizens who got together and wrote what they felt about Fabian. "But (it was) with his approval of the letter, so we didn't say anything we shouldn't say."

She said the volunteers bought their own rolls of stamps (that would be about $840 for 2,000 letters) and their own composition books — "180 pages to a book" — at the Dollar Store.

"I like the skinny lines," she said, "and some of them like fat lines."

Varley said she alone wrote 860 of the letters.

"I may have carpal tunnel syndrome!" she said jokingly. But, "Hey. I like this guy."

By the book

It would be up to the Florida Elections Commission to determine whether the mailings represented a "willfull" violation of state law. And the commission wouldn't take up the question unless a complaint were filed.

One part of the state law says independent expenditures on political advertising must contain a who-paid-for-this disclaimer. People who spend more than $100 to advocate for or against a candidate must also file state expenditure reports.

An "independent expenditure" is defined as one that's done without consulting or coordinating with a political candidate or campaign.

Whether that describes this issue is unclear because Calvo knew about the letters.

The definition of political advertising includes any communication "other than the spoken word in direct conversation, which expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate or the approval or rejection of an issue."

Republican opponent Corcoran said he thinks the volunteers' money that went into the mailings should have been reported as in-kind contributions to Calvo. The letters would have then carried disclaimers from Calvo's campaign.

"I think Fabian Calvo and these people from Largo, they should follow the law like the rest of us," Corcoran said. "And they're not."

Starkey said her mother-in-law wanted to write some handwritten notes on her behalf, so her campaign paid to make up official cards — with a disclaimer — to use.

"I could see how that could happen if he didn't have any control," over his volunteers, she said. "Otherwise, he should be more vigilant."

Calvo's volunteers got a list of Republican voters in District 45 from the elections office, said Varley, and decided who to write to based on how many times they voted in a primary.

"If they never voted in a primary," she said, "why send them, anyway?"

At least one person would not be eligible to receive a letter based on those criteria: Calvo.

He lives just outside the district (he says he'd move if elected) and he has never voted in a Republican primary since registering in Pinellas in 2002.

Calvo said he thinks other Republicans can identify with that.

"I'm like more than half of the people in this state," he said. "A, I never had a candidate I was thrilled about. And B, I wasn't that involved. … Quite frankly, I think that's something a lot of people can relate to."

Corcoran scoffed at Calvo's response.

"No, I don't think people can relate to not exercising their right to vote," he said. "What he's saying is an absolute cop-out and disgrace."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Heartfelt mailings touting a District 45 candidate may have violated election law 07/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 10:29pm]
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