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Judicial flier unfair, committee rules

Philip Federico's campaign flier carried a strong message: "Character is the ONLY issue in judicial candidates."

The flier accused his opponent, Clearwater attorney Wayne T. Phillips, of having "a checkered past" because he fell behind on alimony and child support payments, bounced checks, mishandled an estate, lacked candor on financial disclosure forms and other alleged misdeeds.

On Saturday, however, Phillips gained the high ground. The Fair Campaign Practice Committee ruled that the flier was misleading, inaccurate and unfair.

The committee is a self-appointed, non-partisan group of residents who monitor campaign practices. Their ruling carries no legal clout, only moral suasion. Both Federico and Phillips have signed pledges to follow the committee's code of fair practices.

Phillips, 45, expressed relief. "The depiction of my character was inappropriate. The committee agreed," he said. "It's over, and I'm going to move on" with campaigning for the Group 10 Circuit Court judgeship, which will be decided Nov. 8.

Federico, 38, said he would abide by the committee's decision and discontinue use of the flier. But he stood by his allegations.

"I still believe it's true and accurate, and I haven't heard anything otherwise," he said.

Phillips finished first in a three-way September primary with 38 percent, followed by Federico with 35 percent. The job pays $93,111 a year.

The flier, mailed recently to absentee voters, contained seven charges. Though the committee took three hours of testimony and examined each charge, committee members did not specify which of the allegations they thought were inaccurate.

The committee seemed most concerned with the flier's slant and wording.

"It wasn't balanced. It was like comparing apples and kumquats," said committee member Wallace Witham. "It was full of loaded phrases."

Among other charges, the flier said Phillips loaned his campaign $6,500 while he was "behind in child support and other obligations to his children."

The flier said that Phillips' ex-wife was "forced to file contempt of court to collect back alimony," and that child support and alimony checks had bounced.

Federico said he based both charges on documents filed last year in Phillips' 1990 divorce case. Phillips' ex-wife claimed that child support and alimony were overdue. She also alleged that Phillips had not maintained health insurance on the children as promised.

Federico said he was referring to the health insurance when his flier spoke of Phillips' "other obligations to his children."

At Saturday's hearing, Phillips begrudgingly acknowledged that he owed his wife back alimony, and he admitted bouncing three checks to her while experiencing financial difficulties in his solo law practice. But he said he quickly made good on those checks.

Phillips insisted that he never missed on child support or health insurance. He offered insurance claims forms and bills as proof. He showed checks to Florida State University that helped pay some of his daughter's college expenses after she turned 18.

"I have been extremely generous in the way I have provided for my family," he said.

Federico's flier also alleged that Phillips mishandled a $1.2-million estate and was ordered to repay excessive fees. Phillips "refused . . . to pay the estate's heirs over $23,000," the flier said.

Phillips did not dispute that he owes $23,000 or that the estate incurred Internal Revenue Service penalties because he failed to meet tax deadlines. But he didn't "refuse" to pay the heirs, Phillips said. He and one heir are still in litigation over attorney fees. If he wins, his debt will be reduced, he said. He is waiting for a final figure.

Another allegation dealt with two financial statements Phillips filed. Last January, while trying to get his child support and alimony reduced, he filed a court document showing a negative net worth of nearly $140,000. On campaign disclosure forms six months later, he showed a positive net worth of $62,000.

Federico's flier said the two statements contained "a $185,000 debt discrepancy."

"This is a classic case of someone in his divorce who wants to underestimate his assets, but when he wants to run for office, makes it look different," Federico told the committee.

Phillips explained that he recently had sold his office building, eliminating $90,000 in debt. Other debts, such as credit card bills, and debts that are involved in litigation, are not supposed to be listed on campaign statements, he said.

Federico never called him to find out why the two statements varied.

"This man has had some hard financial times, with his divorce and other matters. It's not uncommon," said committee member Louis Frangipane. "But preying upon that is not in the best interest of the voters."