TALLAHASSEE — Just months before his resignation Friday, Sen. Frank Artiles scored a coup in November when he unseated Democrat Dwight Bullard with an aggressive $1 million campaign in a district that favored Democrats.
But the long list of expenditures filed with the Florida Division of Elections by Artiles' political committee, Veterans for Conservative Principles, also raised some questions. Why did the committee hire a former Hooters "calendar girl" and a Playboy model with no political experience as "consultants?" Were the payments related to a trip to the Kentucky Derby or a fishing tournament in Key West? What was the more than $51,000 in reimbursements to Artiles for?
Heather Thomas, a former Hooters calendar girl and waitress at 101, a restaurant and bar in Tallahassee, was paid $2,000 between March and June of last year. The expense report lists the purpose as "consultant." Her friend, Brittney Singletary, is a waitress at Stetsons on the Moon in Tallahassee. She was paid $1,500 with three checks covering three of the same dates and listing the same purpose.
Artiles' political consultant David Custin refused to comment on why they listed the expenditures as "consultants."
"You don't have a leg to stand on to be asking these questions. There's nothing there," he said. He referred questions to the committee's treasurer, Tallahassee lobbyist Dave Ramba, who did not respond to requests for comment. He noted that Artiles, the chair of the political committee, would not be commenting.
Artiles, a Republican and a Marine Corps veteran, entered the race for the southwest Miami-Dade County district after it was redrawn last year following a bitter redistricting battle. His race became the second most expensive legislative campaign in the state.
It was a brief victory.
Artiles resigned Friday after charges that he violated Senate conduct rules with a profanity-laced tirade at a Tallahassee bar this week in which he called his colleagues in the Senate racial slurs. The complaint was filed by Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, who was with Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville. Artiles referred to Gibson as a "b----," and a "girl" and made reference to some white Republican senators as "n----s." Thurston withdrew the complaint Friday after Artiles' resignation.
To many who knew Artiles over his six-year career in the state Legislature, there were two sides to him. One was the ferocious advocate for his legislation, the proud father of two daughters who boasts about their accomplishments on the softball field. The other is domineering, quick to anger and prone to insults — especially when he drinks — and who viewed his status as a powerful legislator central to his identity.
State law does not require the Florida Division of Elections to validate whether candidates are accurately reporting or identifying their political committee expense reports.
"We are just an administerial filing agency," said Mark Ard, division spokesperson.
According to Thomas' October 2015 job application with former state Rep. Irv Slosberg, Thomas had no previous political experience. Slosberg, a Delray Beach Democrat who retired from the House last year, told the Times/Herald he hired her to work as a legislative aide because "I needed somebody for a week or two" until he could find a full-time aide.
Thomas posted an Instagram picture with a dateline of Delray Beach.
"Selfies at work are never a good idea #floridahouseofrepresentatives," she wrote.
After two weeks, Slosberg wrote a note to House personnel saying he had found a replacement for Thomas. He said Thursday he was not aware that Artiles had hired her six months later. Thomas declined a request for comment.
Thomas graduated in 2010 from Cazenovia College in New York with a degree in fashion merchandising. She listed her experience as having worked as a bartender at Recess, a Tallahassee bar, and as a waitress at 101, a Tallahassee bar and restaurant.
Her Facebook page indicates she is the owner of Hot Cheeks Bikini, and also lists previous experience as a Hooters waitress, where she was chosen to be one of the 2012 "calendar girls."
Singletary, a Tallahassee resident, listed her occupation as a bartender at Stetsons on the Moon on her Facebook page and highlights her selection as a Playboy "Miss Social" model.
According to the spending reports at the Florida Division of Elections, Artiles' committee paid $17,672 to Churchill Downs on March 17 to reserve a box for a "fundraiser" at the Kentucky Derby. It also made a payment of $4,236 to Louisville's Galt House Hotel.
On April 11, the committee paid $2,693 at the Marriott Key West Beachside for a fundraiser. Two days later, the committee paid Thomas and Singletary each $600.
Singletary said in an email that she "did fundraising for PC but never attended any Key West fundraiser."
Two days after the May 7 Kentucky Derby, Thomas and Singletary each received checks for $600 for "consulting." Both declined to comment. It's not know whether either attended the Derby.
Artiles held seven fundraisers around the state, according to his committee's campaign reports, and spent at least $80,000 on fundraising expenses, including reimbursing himself at least $51,000.
One of the Key West trips included Taylor M. Lockwood, a former FSU student and Hooters waitress. The Florida House confirmed Thursday that Lockwood has worked as an unpaid intern in the office of Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami.
In a January 2016 post, Lockwood posted on Facebook that she had "landed an internship with a State Representative for District 118 [then Artiles' district] AND I will not only be the first in my entire family to graduate from college in 3 months, but I will be the first to go to grad school."
She added that her "new-found connections have given me the tools to purse my dream and have someone invest in my future because they see my potential is the best motivation to make it happen."
Later, she posted a photo on her Instagram page standing in front of a Cirrus private plane.
"Lifestyles of the rich and famous. Heading to Key West in style," she wrote. "#thanksfrank."
From Key West, Lockwood posted a photo on her Facebook page standing near someone wearing a shirt that read "Artiles & Beshears Fishing Tournament" and holding a fishing reel.
"Caught 12 dolphins and got so excited that I threw up ... Jk I was just drunk. #ThanksFrank," she wrote.
Lockwood told the Times/Herald Thursday: "I really do not want to comment."
Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, said he and Artiles have held fishing tournaments in the Keys three years in a row during the summer in which they "invited everybody across the board."
He said he could not recall the women who were either hired as consultants or who came from Tallahassee.
"We had a pretty big crowd. I can't remember everybody," he said.
This isn't the first time Artiles' political spending has raised questions. Earlier this year, he amended his political committee report to add that Florida Power & Light paid nearly $2,000 for flights, food and beverages for his travel to Daytona Beach and Disney's Epcot theme park. He made adjustments to the political committee's web site only after being questioned by the Times/Herald.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas