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St. Petersburg City Council candidate's campaign filings reveal possible violations

ST. PETERSBURG — Lisa Wheeler-Brown, a City Council candidate, has amended her campaign filings twice in the last week, conceding she used political contributions for personal medical expenses, a possible violation of state law.

Wheeler-Brown's campaign first acknowledged Friday that the $500 her report listed as an expense for renting office space was actually used for emergency dental work.

That admission revealed a second misrepresentation that wasn't corrected until five days later. If the money her campaign said was spent to lease office space was actually spent to repair a cracked tooth, what then paid the office rent? A second amended report filed Wednesday explained that the rent was paid by an in-kind contribution of $180 by Advantage Village Academy, a local nonprofit.

A curt statement from Wheeler-Brown's campaign downplayed the confusion as "simple clerical errors."

Although the erroneous campaign reports were first filed in April, it wasn't until this past week that they were corrected. Asked about the delay, Wheeler-Brown's campaign manager said the errors were discovered only recently.

"Once we found it, we fixed it," Meagan Salisbury said, without elaborating on when the discovery was made.

The mishaps revealed an ugly rupture between Wheeler-Brown and her former campaign treasurer, Nick Janovsky.

Soon after minimizing the errors, Salisbury blamed Janovsky for giving bad advice to the candidate.

"He (Janovsky) was the general consultant to her campaign and all decisions on spending disclosures were made by him," Salisbury said.

Wheeler-Brown declined any comment.

When reached for a response, Janovsky said he quit after "catching" Wheeler-Brown withdrawing money from her campaign account. That's why he left well before the first campaign financial report was filed, he said.

Salisbury said Janovsky had been fired in March shortly after Wheeler-Brown's campaign obscured the dental expenses. The reason for his termination, Salisbury said, was "poor campaign advice." She provided a March 13 email from Wheeler-Brown dismissing Janovsky.

When asked what advice Janovsky had given Wheeler-Brown, Salisbury said she didn't know because she wasn't working on the campaign then. When asked if Wheeler-Brown could explain, Salisbury responded: "Not at this time."

Janovsky said he had nothing to do with how she reported the expense.

"I gave her zero advice on campaign filings," he said.

Records show he was appointed Wheeler-Brown's treasurer in January.

Salisbury disputed Janovsky's claims that he caught Wheeler-Brown.

"That's completely untrue," Salisbury said. "His accusations are false, and he's just on the defensive."

Salisbury said Janovsky is a supporter of Will Newton, Wheeler-Brown's opponent and the younger brother of Wengay Newton, who currently holds the District 7 council seat. Janovsky said he is not paid nor does he volunteer for Newton's campaign. However, Janovsky did attend Newton's primary campaign watch party in August. On Sept. 18, Janovsky posted "GO WILL! Our next Councilman! Integrity matters!" on his Facebook page.

The dispute stems from a $500 expense on Feb. 26 that was initially reported to have been for office space at Advantage Village Academy on 22nd Street S. That was changed Friday to reflect the money was for a photo shoot.

The vendor listed, however, was not a photo studio, but Modern Day Smiles, a dental practice at 2663 First Ave. N. The campaign maintains the dental work is a legitimate photo shoot expense. Why? Because Wheeler-Brown's cracked tooth would have marred upcoming campaign photos, Salisbury said.

Meanwhile, the office space rental was changed Wednesday to show that it was paid for by in-kind contributions of $180 by Advantage Village Academy.

The Florida Elections Commission can't confirm if a campaign finance complaint has been filed until probable cause is established. That usually takes about six months, said Amy Toman, the commission's executive director.

Nancy Watkins, a certified public accountant who has served as treasurer on numerous high-profile Republican campaigns, said a rule of thumb is that any expense incurred if the person was not a political candidate or incumbent isn't legitimate.

"I have a hard time justifying that as a campaign expense," Watkins said. "But I'm not the final arbiter."

Janovsky said he hasn't filed a complaint and doesn't plan to.

Wheeler-Brown and Newton are vying for the District 7 seat, which covers Midtown, Childs Park and other southern neighborhoods.

Newton declined to comment Wednesday on any of the details.

"I'm going to remain above this and rely on you to report it accurately and let people make up their own minds," he said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

St. Petersburg City Council candidate's campaign filings reveal possible violations 09/23/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 23, 2015 11:13pm]
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