Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Politics

Pinellas direct mail firm linked to FBI investigation of Connecticut lawmakers

LARGO — Direct Mail Systems, a Pinellas County direct mail and printing company that has played a prominent role in Florida politics for decades, confirmed Monday that it is cooperating with the FBI in a criminal investigation of legislators in Connecticut.

The chief of staff for the House Republican caucus in Connecticut, George Gallo, resigned Thursday amid a federal investigation into whether GOP legislative candidates there were pressured to use the company for their campaign mailings to constituents and voters, according to the Hartford Courant newspaper. Direct Mail Systems has earned as much as $2 million from Connecticut legislators' campaigns since 2008.

Gallo resigned from his $150,000-a-year state job after acknowledging that he was a person of interest in the federal probe. At least four FBI agents set up shop last week in Connecticut's Legislative Office Building and questioned lawmakers whose campaigns had hired the company in recent years, the Courant reported.

There are no reports of a similar investigation in Florida. Campaign finance records show that Direct Mail Systems has earned $3.9 million from the Republican Party of Florida since 1998.

Direct Mail Systems is located in unincorporated Pinellas County near Largo and the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport; it has a Clearwater mailing address.

Its CEO, Mike Milligan, issued a statement Monday saying the firm "is cooperating" with the FBI.

"For over 30 years, Direct Mail Systems has earned a reputation as one of America's leading direct mail firms, providing campaigns all across the nation with the highest-quality professional services and products at competitive prices," Milligan said. "We are unaware of the specifics of the FBI's probe as reported in the media, but we have been fully cooperative with the authorities in this Connecticut investigation and will continue to cooperate if asked."

He would not discuss whether FBI agents had confiscated records from the company.

Direct Mail Systems has about 40 full-time employees. The firm was once owned by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who severed ties with the firm in 1997 when he sold it to investors, including Roger "Rocky" Pennington.

A Republican strategist who has been involved in many Florida races, Pennington said Monday that although he's still listed as the firm's president and chief executive officer and is its primary stockholder, he is "semi-retired" and works part time for the firm. Pennington referred questions to Milligan.

"I have no ownership of it whatsoever and haven't for 17 years," said Latvala, who now owns a business with a similar name, Direct Marketing Southeast. "I have no idea what's going on there. I'm told they are not the target of any investigation."

Direct Mail Systems has also been a mail and printing consultant to dozens of Florida Republican candidates, including Tom Gallagher in his 2006 campaign for governor, Jeff Kottkamp in his 2010 run for attorney general, state House leaders Richard Corcoran and Will Weatherford, and state senators Charlie Dean, Joe Negron, David Simmons and Latvala.

The firm most recently did direct mail for state Rep. Kathleen Peters' race for the open Pinellas County District 13 congressional seat. She lost the Jan. 14 primary to David Jolly, the GOP nominee.

"My experience with them was very good. I couldn't come up with a negative thing to say. Imagine my surprise when I saw the first article," said Peters, whose campaign paid the company more than $65,000. She chose the company because she knew Pennington.

According to a story in Friday's Courant, former Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy called the company a leader in a competitive industry in which candidates and political parties seek the best prices. Connecticut Republicans hired the firm because "we got a better deal," Healy said. "Direct mail is targeting, sorting, messaging. It's way more sophisticated. They do it all from concept to delivery.''

Mike Brassfield can be reached at (727) 445-4151 or [email protected]

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