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Signature gathering may have run afoul of federal election laws

Two young men popped out of a van, and sidled up to people waiting outside the polling place at the Gull Aire Village clubhouse Tuesday morning in Oldsmar.

We're students from the Pinellas vocational center. Would you mind signing a petition to put Beverley Billiris on the ballot this year?

Matter of fact, Chris Latvala said he would mind. His stepmother is Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, the fellow Republican who Billiris is running to unseat this year.

Undeterred, the students succeeded in rounding up other signatures for Billiris, currently the mayor of Tarpon Springs. It was part of a "civics lesson," said Robyn Poppick, who organized the students' activity.

But it's a lesson that may have violated federal law.

"It's illegal," Susan Latvala said.

The students, from the Pinellas Technical Education Center, were working with WorkNet Pinellas' YouthBuild program, which aims to help underprivileged youths learn life and job skills. The program received $700,000 in stimulus funding last year. WorkNet is a nonprofit that oversees work force training in the county, funded with state and federal grants.

The IRS bars nonprofits such as WorkNet from advocating for a candidate. WorkNet's state incorporation records also say it will not engage in political activity, as did a spokesman.

"I don't consider it to be appropriate," WorkNet president Ed Peachey told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday, adding that he will determine any discipline for Poppick after gathering more information.

"Maybe this was a bad thing," Poppick said Tuesday after being questioned about the exercise.

Poppick acknowledged offering to collect the petitions as part of the YouthBuild program, where the students also registered to vote and learned about the political process. She said national YouthBuild officials — who couldn't be reached late Tuesday — approved the petition gathering.

Poppick initially said she knew little of Billiris but had met her at a career camp a year ago and found her supportive of the program — a point Billiris echoed.

"I can't even think of the lady's name, Poppick. That's how close we are," said Billiris, who said Poppick assured her Tuesday the work was approved.

Plus, Poppick said, Billiris isn't an "active" candidate because she's not on the ballot yet.

Yet Poppick donated $50 to Billiris' campaign on Dec. 2, finance records show.

Asked who at WorkNet approved the effort, Poppick replied: "I'm the WorkNet person that does the program."

Students arrived in a white van, said Laura Scholtz, an Oldsmar voter who signed the petition as she waved signs in the city election.

"They approached us and said she was very helpful to the organization and they wanted to get her on the ballot," Scholtz said, calling the students "honest" and "grateful."

But they also solicited Chris Latvala, who was there with his father Jack, Susan's ex-husband who is a consultant and candidate for state Senate. They began watching what was going on, questioning whether government money was supporting the campaign effort and tracking down the van's owner, which turned out to be WorkNet Pinellas, Chris Latvala said.

Billiris said Poppick, 47, who is a Democrat, has no role on her campaign. The students weren't paid. She summed up the Latvalas' complaints as "tit for tat."

In fact, Poppick said her husband donated to Susan Latvala, though she didn't know the amount.

"It's a shame," Poppick said. "How are the kids supposed to learn about the process?"

Then she corrected herself. Perhaps they will from this.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Signature gathering may have run afoul of federal election laws 03/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 11:02pm]
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