Sunday, May 20, 2018
Politics

Ronda Storms trounces incumbent Rob Turner in Hillsborough property appraiser's race

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner's fall from grace ended with a humiliating thud Tuesday when his bid for a fifth term was overwhelmingly rejected in the wake of a porn-sending scandal.

After 16 years in office, Turner suffered a crushing defeat by Sen. Ronda Storms in the Republican primary. Storms won with 70 percent of the vote, a resounding trouncing of an incumbent by the colorful, well-known lawmaker.

"I think it means that the voters appreciate what we stand for, and that is integrity and accountability," Storms said. "I'm so thankful to voters for giving me that vote of confidence."

Turner seemed headed to an easy return to office this spring, facing challenges from two relatively unknown opponents. Then came his admission to the Tampa Bay Times in May that he sent pornographic emails spanning a period of months to his then-human resources director, a woman he also admitted he had previously dated while she was his employee.

Turner then fired the woman, Carolyn Filippone, as the Times was preparing its story. His reasoning: She had filed a false sexual discrimination claim against him that included samples of his pornographic communication.

He maintained that the emails were part of a mutual exchange that occurred in off hours after they stopped dating and also included pictures of puppies and kittens. He said that it was not part of a harassment campaign, and that he made no advances toward her.

Filippone has since filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the office.

Storms announced that she would abandon an easy re-election bid for a final term as senator after Turner's actions were publicized, saying she would run to restore professionalism to the office. She had previously served eight years as a Hillsborough County commissioner, where she built a reputation for leading crusades against public nudity, gay pride displays and other socially conservative causes.

This was her first time running in and winning a countywide election.

She faces former state Rep. Bob Henriquez, a Democrat who also jumped into the race after the porn admission, in the November general election. There are also two candidates running without party affiliation, James DeMio and Rob Townsend.

Since late May, Turner has all but stopped talking to reporters, fielding questions only in writing. He declined to do even that Tuesday night, and did not return a call to his cellphone.

Turner, 61, a former banker, tried to keep his campaign hopes alive by touting his budget cutting experience and credentials as a banker and in the appraisal field. He blasted Storms, 46, who has law and teaching degrees, saying she lacks a resume suitable for the job.

"My opponent is not qualified in the least to lead this office, has a mediocre history of performance and is just out looking for a job," he said in email response to questions last month.

But in the final days of the campaign, questions arose about one of his credentials. For years, Turner has claimed to have graduated from the University of Virginia's School of Bank Management.

The school is actually a professional development program for working bankers run by the Virginia Bankers Association and taught on the University of Virginia's campus. It includes a week of coursework each summer for three years, with assignments in between.

Turner said he has not misled anyone with his description, but Storms pounced on what she described as a deliberate effort to deceive the public while he questioned others' professional experience.

"Based on that assumption, (my daughter) can say she has a degree from the University of Florida because she once attended a 4-H Congress at the university," she said.

Turner arrived in office 16 years ago criticizing the two-term incumbent, Ron Alderman, who had been caught bar-hopping during work hours and faced accusations of cronyism. Turner used news headlines to cast Alderman as "bumbling."

At an election night party, Alderman supporters menaced reporters who showed up, as results pointed to his defeat.

Tuesday night, the website Tampa Bay Online said one of its reporters tracked Turner to a South Tampa restaurant. Turner pushed its reporter outside, saying it was a private party, and threatened to call police, the site said.

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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