State investigators say the Florida Democratic Party broke election laws by spending up to four times the legal limit in a number of legislative races last year.
An investigative report obtained by the Times suggests that the party busted campaign spending limits in at least seven Senate races in 1994, including three in the Tampa Bay area. Of the seven races, the Democrats lost six of them.
The investigation, conducted by the Florida Elections Commission, represents the third time since 1992 that the state Democratic Party has been questioned about its campaign spending. The latest probe is wide-ranging and extends beyond the seven races mentioned in the investigative report obtained this week.
John French, a lawyer for the Florida Democratic Party, said the investigators were pursuing possible felony charges against Party Chairwoman Terrie Brady. But he said he believes that, in the end, Brady will be charged only with a civil violation of filing a false spending report.
French says investigators are overblowing the violations, which he says have more to do with accounting practices than infractions of the state's election laws. Politicians and bureaucrats acknowledge those laws are open to some interpretation. But French said the party certainly spent beyond legal limits in some cases.
"I think when all the smoke clears and the numbers are sorted out, they will conclude that some overspending occurred in some races," French said. "It was mostly our fault. We were trying to do the right thing without the resources, and in some instances it was blatant stupidity."
State laws limit party contributions in legislative races to $50,000, except for polling services, research services, technical assistance and voter mobilization efforts.
According to the report, a total of $987,142 was spent on the seven Senate races, rather than the total of $350,000 that the report says was the legal limit.
The elections commission report found that the Democrats spent $223,923 in a vain attempt to help Matthew Carlucci of Jacksonville win a Senate seat that was won by Republican Jim Horne of Orange Park. Carlucci reported receiving $178,249 from the party while the party reported giving him $182,323.
In every Senate race cited by the commission, the party failed to notify the candidates of the true amount spent in each race, causing each candidate to underreport the amount of help they received.
The party spent $135,369 helping Janet Tolar in a race won by Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Spring Hill, and spent $120,654 helping Dana Maley in a race won by Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg.
Another $162,231 went to Chuck Lehr in a race won by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, and $106,948 went to former Sen. Jim Boczar of Sarasota in a race won by Sen. Katherine Harris, R-Sarasota.
The party also spent $73,762 helping Robert Hertig in a race won by Sen. John M. McKay, R-Bradenton, and $164,255 to help Sen. Tom Rossin, D-West Palm Beach, win election.
The commission will take up the latest problems at its December meeting.
After finding similar problems and a lot of sloppy bookkeeping in 1992, the commission warned the Democrats that they had better take steps to properly account for the money they spend on behalf of individu-al candidates.
News of the latest investigation comes as the party is in the midst of dealing with an investigation of mysterious calls made to voters by the 1994 campaign to re-elect Gov. Lawton Chiles. The party furnished a list of names and telephone numbers to the Chiles campaign for calls that were made to senior citizens in seven Florida counties, but denies helping make the calls.
French agreed to talk about the current investigation after the Times obtained a copy of the heretofore secret investigative report compiled by the elections commission. French said the party will formally waive confidentiality one day next week so the entire file will become an open record.
French said the party disagrees with some of the items the commission has counted because no clear rule exists defining the items that should be excluded from the $50,000 limit.
He said the situation is complicated by the fact that the party pays for some services used by more than one candidate. So it can be difficult to keep track of how much should be allocated to each candidate.
French said he doesn't believe Brady or legislative leaders knew about the excess expenditures.
The overspending was discovered after the commission, in an effort to determine how much money was spent on various candidates, subpoenaed records from 15 companies that entered into contracts with the state party. Three out-of-state companies that did work for the party refused to comply with the subpoenas.
Vendors were hired to conduct opposition research, take pictures, handle direct mailings, print brochures and do other campaign duties.