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Hillsborough commissioner's $10,000 campaign manager: his wife

TAMPA — Campaign seasons have been lucrative for the Les Miller household.

Take this past year: Miller got elected to a new $90,000-a-year post as a Hillsborough County commissioner. He also paid his wife, City Council member Gwen Miller, $10,489 in leftover donations for working as his campaign manager.

The relationship has proven reciprocal. Four years ago, Gwen Miller paid her husband $17,000 for managing her re-election campaign, according to campaign finance records. That's nearly half of what the council position pays annually.

Elections officials say the practice is not prohibited. More than a few politicians have received attention for using donations to pay relatives for working on their campaigns.

But a spouse? Les Miller said he doesn't consider that akin to paying himself.

Miller, a Democrat who has served in the state House and Senate, said he has paid campaign managers in past elections. He said he sees no reason to act differently because that person this time was his wife.

"She ran my entire campaign," Miller said Wednesday. "She basically put me here."

In both instances, the payments came from the campaign in a lump sum after the election was over.

State campaign finance laws prescribe the permissible ways to dispose of leftover campaign cash. Candidates can donate the money to charity, settle unpaid bills or return what's left back to donors, for instance.

And, yes, they can pay campaign staff, including relatives.

"If she worked on the campaign, then, no, there's no wrongdoing," said Travis Abercrombie, spokesman for the Hillsborough County supervisor of elections. "They can be paid because they're a campaign worker."

In the past, Miller, who has a separate job as student ombudsman at the University of South Florida, said his campaign manager's final payment has been determined based on what, if anything, is left over.

"At the end, if I had any money left over, I paid them," Miller said. "If we didn't have any money left over, they didn't get paid."

Miller raised just more than $60,000 before the August Democratic primary election, when he dispatched incumbent Kevin White and another rival. He raised another roughly $38,000 after the primary, though he had only a write-in opponent remaining. He had about $25,000 left in his coffers after the general election, paying his wife for "services rendered" from that.

Gwen Miller did not return a call seeking comment late Wednesday. Les Miller said he didn't recall whether he had been paid for working on his wife's 2007 campaign, in which she staved off a tougher than expected challenge from strip-club owner Joe Redner.

Political consultants reached for this story said paying a spouse to work on a campaign may be allowable, but that does not make it advisable.

"It's not something I've seen happen too often," said Steven Schale, a Democratic strategist based in Tallahassee who generally works on campaigns at the state level or higher. "If I had a candidate who asked me if it was a good idea, I would strongly advise against it.

"It looks wrong," he said.

Beyond that, Schale and Tampa-based Republican consultant April Schiff said it could be perilous in practical terms. Spouses can be too close to offer objective guidance, and the relationship could prove awkward.

"Campaigns are emotional. Marriages are emotional," Schiff said. "You don't really want to mix the both of them."

Former Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder and his wife, Lynn Marvin, have made it work. She served as his campaign manager in his various bids for the council and Hillsborough County Commission.

But Marvin hasn't gotten paid, though campaign consulting is what she has done for a living.

"Even though she deserves to be paid because she works as hard or harder than I do, I guess we just consider ourselves a team," Dingfelder said, while making clear he's not passing judgment on Miller.

Times staff writers Colleen Jenkins and Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387 .

Hillsborough commissioner's $10,000 campaign manager: his wife 02/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 11:45pm]
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