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Hillsborough commissioner's political endorsement, campaign check in question

TAMPA — Is Kevin White a Navy man or isn't he?

The Hillsborough County commissioner boasts on his Web site and in campaign literature that he is a U.S. Navy veteran. His election material says he has been endorsed by the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. And the campaign report for his 2010 re-election effort lists a $500 contribution from the veterans group.

But White's military separation papers show he enlisted in the Navy on June 4, 1982, and was discharged after just 56 days of service. A few years later, when White applied to become a Tampa police officer, the application asked if White was a veteran. He checked "no."

The political endorsement and campaign check from the veterans group are also in question.

"Our group does not do endorsements and has never made any contribution to candidate for office, ever,'' said retired Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Bobby C. Thompson, the group's director of development.

Yet White's 2006 campaign flier lists an endorsement by the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. And his campaign report this year lists a $500 contribution March 2 by the same group.

Thompson, 63, said Friday that he did send a $500 money order to White but that it came from him individually, not the veterans group. Thompson's contribution included his home address, 1626 E 17th Ave., near Ybor City. White's campaign report shows the address of the veterans group as 1627 E 17th Ave., a nonexistent address that would be in the parking lot of the Cuesta Ray cigar plant.

Thompson, who sent two $500 contributions to White during his 2006 County Commission campaign, says he was initially drawn to the candidate because White said he was a Navy veteran.

"I've never asked for any favors from him, and the Navy vets have never asked for any favors,'' Thompson said. "I'm just a white guy who lives in a poor district that White represents, and when he was on the City Council, he was the only Navy veteran running, and I felt it was a good idea to support him."

Thompson is certain he did not send the wrong address to the White campaign, and he concluded that its listing, along with the entry showing a contribution from the veterans group, "must have been mis-entered."

Thompson is satisfied that White is a bona fide Navy veteran, even if his service lasted only eight weeks.

"If he was honorably discharged, that's it, buddy," Thompson told a reporter.

White's discharge papers show his discharge was "honorable." They also show that he enlisted at age 17, was transferred from Florida to San Diego, and separated because he "enlisted in error."

On Friday, the 44-year-old White was tight-lipped about his Navy service.

"I went in, and I was honorably discharged, and that's all I'll say about it,'' he said.

Asked about the reason for the separation, he said it was because of "medical reasons." He would not comment on the information saying he had "enlisted in error."

If a medical condition kept White from completing his Navy enlistment, it did not prevent him from becoming a Tampa police officer. He was a given a clean bill of health and became a patrol officer.

White's veteran status was one question that appeared on the police employment application. Asked if he was a veteran, White checked "no."

So is he or isn't he?

"I guess that depends on what your definition of veteran is,'' White said. "I don't know. That was years and years ago."

One veteran's group spokeswoman said there's no denying that White was a military veteran but added that he ought to tell the whole truth to constituents about his military service.

"I don't think you can get around that, yeah, he's a veteran, but he'd really have to push it because of the very little time he was in,'' said Mary Shantag, an official with the P.O.W. Network, a veterans support group that works to expose counterfeit military credentials. "I'd certainly like an explanation about why he did not complete his enlistment. He needs to clarify that. He owes that to the people."

White initially said he was uncertain what happened involving the $500 contribution shown from the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. He said Friday that he would check with campaign treasurer Sheryl O'Neal — who is also his mother — to try to find out what happened.

Later Friday, White called the St. Petersburg Times back and explained that his campaign had received a $500 money order along with Thompson's business card from the veterans group. So, White said, the contribution was listed from the veterans association.

On that listing, however, the White campaign described the $500 contribution as a "check," even though it wasn't a check.

This isn't White's first problem with campaign reporting.

Two years ago, he settled a Florida Elections Commission complaint by paying $9,500 after a probable cause finding that he committed 14 election-law violations. The complaint involved White's use of $6,100 in campaign funds to buy tailored Italian suits and other clothing. It also accused him of using false entries on a campaign report, including a phony address, to show the money went to a consultant. The campaign expenditures actually went to White's clothier.

The state elections commission initially sought $38,047 in fines before the settlement.

Last year, the Times reported that White also took campaign contributions from now-convicted swindler Matthew Cox, a mortgage fraud specialist serving 26 years in prison.

Cox enlisted associates and family members to write campaign checks to White, then reimbursed them for the contributions — a practice prohibited by Florida election law.

Cox also said in letters to the Times that he paid a $7,000 cash bribe to White before the 2006 Tampa City Council runoff in return for future rezoning votes. Cox told FBI agents the story of the alleged bribe as part of his cooperation with the government before being sentenced.

Cox's public defender, Mildred Dunn, who was present during the FBI interviews, confirmed that Cox told agents about the purported bribe to White.

"Kevin White was the first thing the FBI wanted to talk to (Cox) about,'' Dunn said.

White said he never knew that Cox orchestrated a series of illegal contributions to his City Council campaign, and he angrily denied ever taking any cash payments from Cox. White said last year that Cox was lying.

White still says he was endorsed by the U.S. Navy Veterans Association three years ago, despite Thompson's insistence that the group never endorsed White or any other candidate.

White claimed in 2006 that he had also been endorsed by the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, but the group said later it had not done so and never endorses County Commission candidates.

Last week, a federal jury found that White sexually discriminated against former aide Alyssa Ogden. Jurors awarded her $75,000 after determining that White fired her after she rebuffed his sexual advances. The county's total cost in the case, including attorneys' fees, is nearly $500,000.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough commissioner's political endorsement, campaign check in question 08/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 2:10pm]
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