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Tampa businesses linked to influential trial lawyer are major contributors to Pinellas sheriff race

TAMPA — The glass-walled office tower at the corner of Dale Mabry Highway and W Kennedy Boulevard in South Tampa seems an odd place of business for a cattle company, or an airplane-rental firm, or a vendor of equestrian supplies.

But campaign finance reports indicate that these ventures and more keep shop at 1 N Dale Mabry, across a landscaped parking lot from a Barnes & Noble. And the businesses apparently have a favorite in the hotly contested Republican primary race for Pinellas County sheriff.

Pinellas elections records show that no fewer than 14 businesses — all with listed addresses at three office suites at 1 N Dale Mabry — donated the maximum legal amount under state law to Pinellas sheriff candidate Everett Rice. All did so on the same two days in February and March.

And behind all of them stands Tampa litigator Jim Wilkes, one of Florida's most prominent trial lawyers.

Wilkes is famous for his high-payout lawsuits against the nursing home industry and his influence in the state capital. He attended Stetson University College of Law with Rice in the 1980s, as did Wilkes' law partner, Tim McHugh.

Their firm, Wilkes & McHugh, is located at 1 N Dale Mabry.

Wilkes now is helping out his old friend in a manner that doesn't run afoul of the $500 contribution limit imposed by Florida election law: He's giving money to Rice's campaign through a horde of businesses in which he has an ownership stake, ranging from country music recording labels to an inactive limestone mine in Sumter County. McHugh also is part owner of a number of the corporations supporting Rice.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Wilkes confirmed that he was an owner or investor in the companies and that their contributions to Rice's campaign were based on his support for his former law school classmate.

"If I've got a friend who's running for sheriff, and I can manage a few thousand bucks here and there, and my partner can manage a few thousand dollars, we're going to do it," Wilkes said.

He added, "I wanted to give the most I could legally give to Everett Rice."

• • •

Wilkes says the contributions comply with state law, which allows multiple companies owned by or affiliated with the same person to contribute to a campaign. The businesses all are freestanding organizations that generate their own revenue, file their own tax returns and make political donations out of separate bank accounts, he said.

Nevertheless, his donations to Rice through those various enterprises — along with similar patterns of giving by others to Rice's Republican opponent, incumbent Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri — demonstrate to some how wealthy donors can circumvent the spirit, if not the letter, of Florida's laws limiting political spending.

Through the businesses to which he has ties, Wilkes has magnified his giving power in the sheriff's race well beyond a few hundred dollars. Rice has received at least $7,000 from the companies in which Wilkes is owner or investor. Wilkes and McHugh each have made maximum $500 individual contributions as well.

Experts on campaign finance say such company donations are a murky area of elections funding, rarely policed by state officials and almost never questioned by candidates' treasurers. Companies' legal standing to contribute to political campaigns can be difficult to determine.

The main criterion — that the businesses generate their own income rather than merely serving as outlets for one deep-pocketed donor — can't be evaluated without a for-profit company's voluntary disclosure of tax records that are not otherwise public.

"There's really no way to know, because there's no way to get access to the books and records," said Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron, who is knowledgeable about election law. "There's no way to get there from here."

While reformers' ire is currently directed at the rise of "super PACs" with unlimited spending power in federal elections, the practice of giving to campaigns through sprawling sets of companies affiliated with one or a few individuals continues to trouble some observers at the local and state level.

"When I describe the campaign finance laws, nationally and in the state, I describe it as a spider web — everything is connected to everything else," said University of South Florida government professor Susan Mac­Manus. The ease with which large amounts of money pour into campaigns from small clusters of benefactors, she said, "contributes to this notion that elections are for sale."

State Division of Elections officials did not return calls for this story.

In contrast with Florida, such dynamics aren't the norm in federal elections, according to Anthony Corrado, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who tracks campaign finance regulations across the country.

Corrado said one of the primary missions of federal elections law is to make it difficult for single donors to make contributions through various private companies or political committees.

At a basic level, corporations are prohibited from donating directly to candidates' campaigns in federal elections. The Justice Department also has cracked down on methods such as channeling money through various political committees or reimbursing employees who contribute to campaigns, he said.

"Generally, that type of conduit activity, and that type of shell games, you don't see that" in federal elections, Corrado said. "Federal law has a lot of provisions to prevent that type of activity."

• • •

Some Wilkes companies that donated to Rice's campaign are businesses with significant public profiles, such as Streamsound Records and Red Vinyl Music, music publishing outfits in Nashville that work with stars like Tim McGraw.

Others require some explaining. Mike's Airplane Rentals? It's a holding company for the law firm's two private jets, created for tax purposes, according to Wilkes. Rocking G Inc.? "It's a non-operating mine with an open permit" in Sumter County, he said. The Flying W. Cattle Co. runs more than 400 head of cattle on ranchland in Central Florida, Wilkes said.

Property records show that five Wilkes corporations with horse-themed names like Equine Estates, Carriage Country and Derby Dreams own land in Sumter County. Wilkes said the companies hold undeveloped properties he had intended to turn into "a beautiful bunch of horse ranches" before the economy soured.

Rice said he has no problems with Wilkes' contributions to his campaign. The practice of giving by various corporations is less important than scrutinizing the motivation for such gifts, Rice said, and Wilkes doesn't practice any criminal law that would create a potential conflict of interest for the Sheriff's Office.

Rice, who served as Pinellas sheriff for 16 years before stepping down in 2004, has amassed $349,000 in total campaign funds. He has maintained a steady fundraising lead over Gualtieri, who has $208,000.

Companies tied to one or two powerful backers also are supporting Gualtieri. State Division of Corporations records indicate that either Dan Doyle — a 71-year-old Belleair resident who founded the Tampa Bay area copier firm Danka Office Imaging Co. — or his son, Dan Doyle Jr., are officers, directors or managers in seven companies that contributed the maximum legal amount to the incumbent sheriff.

The firms all are based at one of two addresses in Tampa and St. Petersburg and made their donations over a two-day span in March. Father and son each gave an additional $500. The Doyles could not be reached for comment.

Gualtieri said he had several breakfasts with the elder Doyle early in the sheriff's campaign. "For lack of a better word, he evaluated me and my position on things," Gualtieri said.

Doyle apparently liked what he heard.

"He just said he was going to help out," Gualtieri said. "The next thing I know, that's what happened."

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

Tampa businesses linked to influential trial lawyer are major contributors to Pinellas sheriff race 08/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 4, 2012 12:29am]
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