A man challenging U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis in the Nov. 6 election filed a federal campaign finance complaint this week after the congressman used campaign money in 2008 to pay membership dues in the secretive group Royal Order of Jesters.
The complaint was filed by John Russell of Dade City, who is running as an independent after unsuccessful campaigns for Congress in 2006 and 2008. He declined to provide a copy of the complaint, saying that would allow Bilirakis' supporters to formulate excuses before the Federal Election Commission launches an investigation.
"The person who should be supplying the details is Congressman Bilirakis," he said. "He needs to come forth as a sitting congressman and explain his involvement in the Jesters."
Campaign records show Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, paid a total of $1,334 to the Jesters' chapter in Tampa. That includes $339 in April 2007 for an "event registration" and three payments in fall 2008 for membership dues.
The Royal Order of Jesters is a subset of the Shriners International, which operates a network of philanthropic hospitals. The Jesters is an invitation-only group with a sole focus to promote fraternity among members. The group's slogan is "Mirth is King." The group does not divulge its membership and has rituals known only to members.
Bilirakis' office provided a copy of FEC guidelines that say campaign money can pay for membership dues to groups that "may have political interests."
"This would include community or civic organizations that a candidate or officeholder joins in his or her district in order to maintain political contacts with constituents or the business community," the guidelines state.
The FEC will send Bilirakis a copy of the complaint and give him 15 days to respond. That time line likely pushes a resolution beyond Election Day. Agency lawyers will then decide whether to forward the complaint to the six-person commission.
There are two other candidates for the District 12 seat that includes Pasco and portions of Pinellas and Hillsborough: Democrat Jonathan Snow and no-party candidate Paul Elliott.
Russell also has criticized Bilirakis' affiliation with the Jesters, pointing to a series of federal convictions of members of the Buffalo, N.Y., chapter.
Those cases involve five men who admitted to arranging for prostitutes at several Jesters events in upstate New York and in nearby Ontario, Canada. One of the men, a former New York State Supreme Court justice, admitted in a plea agreement that he transported prostitutes to a Jesters event in Kentucky and events in unspecified cities in Pennsylvania and Florida. The agreement said the Florida event occurred in fall 2006.
A spokesman for the organization, which has 191 chapters and more than 20,000 members nationwide, condemned the actions of that "very, very small group" in Buffalo, and described it as an isolated incident.
A Bilirakis spokeswoman released a statement last week saying the congressman "has served as an inactive member" of the Jesters' Tampa chapter. The federal indictments involved members of chapters "outside of Florida to which the Congressman is not affiliated and had no knowledge," the statement said.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.