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Hillsborough Commissioner Blair refutes billboard accusation

TAMPA — The Democrat challenging Republican Hillsborough County commissioner Brian Blair made a dramatic call for the incumbent to resign Wednesday amid allegations of campaign finance violations.

Kevin Beckner accused Blair of "possibly" violating laws by letting a developer pay for a campaign billboard without disclosing it.

Trouble is, Blair's campaign has paid for use of the billboard in question at Ehrlich Road west of Dale Mabry Highway.

Blair's campaign produced a check stub showing a $2,500, first-month's payment to CBS Outdoor, owner of the billboard. CBS also provided a computerized copy of the check, along with a copy of a mailing label from the DHL Express envelope in which it arrived.

CBS spokesman Jeremy Murphy said a company called North Dale Development has a contract to use the billboard, and that it has sublet the advertising space to Blair's campaign. Blair has access to the billboard from the Aug. 26 to. Nov. 4, Murphy said. Those dates span the period from the primary to the general election.

"There was a letter of assignment, assigning it to the campaign," Murphy said. "The campaign has paid for the billboard."

Beckner based his charge on a story first published on the Web site of news weekly Creative Loafing late Tuesday. The story raised questions about who is paying for the billboard on busy Ehrlich Road.

It hinged largely on a copy of an invoice from CBS Outdoor the paper said it obtained from an anonymous source. Dated Aug. 20, it appears to bill North Dale Development for the billboard located at Bourbon Street Plaza.

That would be intriguing, since the main principal of North Dale is Stephen Dibbs, a controversial developer who has pushed to eliminate regulations over development near wetlands. He has been an active Blair supporter, holding a fundraiser for him and contributed to his campaign.

Two Beckner supporters blasted Blair during the public comment of Wednesday's commission meeting, drawing attention to the story.

Blair said the story was wrong.

Asked during a break if Dibbs or North Dale is paying for the billboard, Blair said, "Absolutely, unequivocally no. I paid for it." He said the check, dated Sept. 19, will be reported on campaign disclosure reports due in the mail by Friday.

In fact, the CBS invoice appears to show that Dibbs did not give Blair a break on the billboard either. It seeks payment of $2,500 for August. Murphy said that is the monthly rate to lease that particular billboard.

A call to Beckner was returned by his campaign manager, Mitch Kates. He didn't back away from the news release quoting Beckner assailing Blair's "unfortunate indiscretion," accusing him of campaign law violations and calling for him to resign.

Kates noted that the billboard draws attention to the Aug. 26 primary, which seems to suggest the billboard went up before Blair started paying for it.

"Right now I'm having a hard time understanding why someone would say they put up a billboard after the primary that says 'vote in the primary,' " Kates said. "From what I've been told that sign's been up for a while."

Kates suggested the St. Petersburg Times call a man named Julio at HoHo Choy Chinese Restaurant at Bourbon Street Plaza, who might confirm as much.

A man named Julio came to the phone at HoHo Choy, but said he could not say for certain when the advertisement went up and didn't want to get involved.

Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough Commissioner Blair refutes billboard accusation 10/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 6:36pm]
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