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Sifting through mud and mail in House race

The gloves are off in the race for state House District 51 — two of the candidates are hurling mud and the head of the Pinellas Democratic Party has joined the fray.

The spitting began a couple of weeks ago when challenger Larry Ahern mailed a flier paid for by the Republican Party. The flier brands incumbent Democrat Janet Long as a career politician and Tallahassee insider. It lists four examples of Long's alleged misdeeds.

An outraged Long sent out an e-mail blast titled "the mud begins to fly" that criticized Ahern's mailer as "malicious." She urged people to call Ahern to complain and left him a message herself.

Long said her message was "something along the lines of 'I am so disappointed that you have decided to take this negative tact. … You're not a leader, you're not a public official and already you've been bought and paid for by the Republican Party of Florida.' "

Ahern said last week that Long's reaction was "pretty unprofessional for a sitting representative."

A day or so later, Ramsay McLauchlan, head of the Pinellas County Democratic Party, sent out a fundraising letter that laid out Ahern's alleged misdeeds. McLauchlan said in the mailing that Long had asked him not to send it but he had done so anyway.

"I am simply tired of the lies and distortions," McLauchlan said. "I could not sit by and watch the 30 years of public service marginalized by irresponsible ads paid for by people who do not know the tough issues that we face in Pinellas County on a daily basis."

Here are the claims each made, the facts behind them and the candidates' responses.

Ahern's mailer

Long was suspended by state government for using state resources and state employees to conduct personal business.

Long, who was the St. Petersburg Consumer Assistance Field Office Administrator for the state Department of Insurance, was investigated in 1991. She was alleged to have used state equipment, state staff and, in at least one incident, department letterhead, all on state time, to help her carry out her duties as the president of the Quail Ridge Homeowners Association, according to the investigator's report. Long and her secretary said the work was done outside business hours and that she used her own supplies or department supplies that were scheduled for disposal. But Long did admit to using the department's computer, copy machine and secretary.

The investigator concluded she had misused state property. She was suspended for three days, later reduced to one day.

Long: "I did use the copy machine is the bottom line. … I made a mistake (but) it doesn't have anything to do with my ability to be a good policymaker."

"Spent thousands of taxpayer dollars as a member of the Seminole City Council for travel and training expenses, including a trip to Salt Lake City."

Seminole city records show Long spent a total of $22,460 on travel and training from 2001 through 2006 when she left the council to run for State House. City records also indicate she went to Salt Lake City in 2002 for a meeting of the National League of Cities.

Long: "I did do that. … I also went to a conference in Boston as a state legislator and I paid for the whole trip myself because I thought it was worth going. I could have gone on the state's dime but I didn't."

"Voted against reducing the state's budget two years in a row."

She voted against the state budget the past two years.

Long: Many budget amendments are presented at the last minute. That's how things like the Taj Mahal court of appeals building and airplane hangar get into the budget. She said it's wrong to vote for something that you haven't had time to study. She also disagreed with the way education was funded. "I could talk to you for hours about why I didn't vote for the budget. There's horrible things in there."

"As Deputy Insurance Commissioner, Janet Long allowed insurance companies to create new companies to help hide profits from the state and charge us more for insurance coverage."

After Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, insurance companies threatened to leave the state. Then-insurance commissioner Bill Nelson, a Democrat, came up with several changes. One was to allow insurance companies to form subsidiary companies to cover only Floridians. Long was a long way from the decision physically and influentially — she worked in the Pinellas office of the department and was not responsible for policymaking.

Officials debate whether the companies cost Floridians more. Republican Tom Gallagher, the state's former chief financial officer, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2006 the companies were "probably not" to blame for higher rates.

Long: "I was not in the regulatory division that was responsible for implementing or recommending. ... I was charged with following the law."

McLauchlan's mailer

McLauchlan says his accusations show Ahern is not the upstanding, good businessman he portrays himself to be. In the mailing, McLauchlan charges that:

"Larry Ahern has had four separate foreclosures on mortgages before the houseing (sic) bubble burst."

Ahern was named as a defendant in four foreclosure cases in 1990 and 1991, but not for failure to make payments, according to county records. In the cases, he was named because his pool company had a claim against the property owner. There is no record in Pinellas that Ahern himself was ever sued for foreclosure against real estate he owned.

Ahern: "If you want to talk about lies, that's a lie. It's pretty much ridiculous. … My house is paid for. Everything I own is free and clear. That's fiscal responsibility. … I'm the victim and they're making me sound like the villain."

"He has also been the defendant in numerous lawsuits to collect money for goods sold or wrongful acts."

Pinellas County records show Ahern listed as a defendant twice (other than the mortgage foreclosure cases). Once was in 1979 and the other in 2008.

The 2008 lawsuit was a dispute with a former landlord who sued over the condition Ahern left the building in when he moved his business after 22 years there. The case was settled for $15,000.

"In one instance, he sued someone over a $75 bill."

Records show Ahern or one of his companies listed as a plaintiff in 10 lawsuits from 1984 through 2005. Most were claims against customers for unpaid bills.

Ahern: Conceded he sued for small amounts. Sometimes that was the only way to get paid.

"Larry Ahern … (hired) a high price criminal defense attorney to help him face the consequences for his arrest and prosecution of his DUI and driving on a suspended license."

Pinellas County records show Ahern was arrested Jan. 10, 1997, and charged with driving under the influence, speeding and having no registration. He had a 0.12 on the Breathalyzer test. Two charges were dismissed. He pleaded no contest to the DUI charge and was fined $505, had his license revoked, was placed on probation, and was ordered to attend DUI school and to perform 50 hours of community service. His probation ended in December 1997. There are no records indicating he was charged with driving on a suspended license. His attorney was David Levy.

Ahern: "I take full responsibility for that. ... I made a mistake. ... I don't drink anymore. ... (Levy) was an old friend of the family. ... It wasn't some high-priced criminal attorney."

Sifting through mud and mail in House race 10/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 9, 2010 1:18pm]
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