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"Bundled' funds aid sheriff in campaign

More than half of the $23,900 that Pasco County Sheriff Bob White raised in the first six weeks of his re-election effort was associated with two sources: a wealthy Pasco County businessman and White's command staff.

White raised an average of about $500 a day during the first month and a half of his bid for re-election in 2004.

More than a third of that money came from people and businesses associated with Lynn D. Stewart, one of the six co-founders of the Hooters restaurant chain. More than 20 percent of the donations came from White's command staff and their families.

Stewart gave $500, the maximum contribution allowed by one person or entity under Florida law. His mother and father, his wife, his two sons and their wives each also donated $500 apiece.

Money also was given to White's campaign by nine different businesses that Stewart and his wife are associated with, including eight that operate out of the same warehouse in New Port Richey. And $500 was contributed by a lawyer who is the registered agent for those businesses.

The total comes to $9,000, which is 37.7 percent of the money White raised between Aug. 14, when he filed for re-election, and Oct. 1, the end of the most recent quarterly fundraising period.

Though Stewart lives in Pinellas County, some members of his family live in Pasco.

"I want them to have the best protection you can possibly have," he said this week. "And that's how you get it, by having the best man available."

Stewart, who was once the majority owner of Hooters, sold his stock in the mid 1990s and has not been involved with the company since.

In the late 1990s, Stewart had big plans for a Hudson marina that entailed spending about $5-million. Stewart spent $100,000 solely on the planning phase, which called for a recreation/retail area north of Hudson Beach that would rival Tarpon Springs or John's Pass.

The plans called for launching a casino boat from the area that would sail past buildings lining the Hudson Channel. These were to include shops, a 200-seat restaurant and a dock.

Stewart eventually bowed out, amid concerns about the cost of the land and fears that the channel _ just 18 inches deep in some places _ would never be dredged.

The businesses connected to Stewart that donated to White's campaign are real estate, construction and property management businesses, a boat charter company and a granite contractor.

The entities operating out of the New Port Richey warehouse where 10 of White's campaign contributions originated include L.D. Stewart Enterprises Inc. and LDS Property Management Inc. They also include five real estate and property management companies that filed for incorporation on Jan. 3. Stewart said he and his wife control most or all of them.

On Sept. 24, the Stewarts filed to incorporate another company based in the New Port Richey warehouse. The company is named Riverfront Marina on the Cotee, LLC.

Stewart, who contributed to Sheriff Lee Cannon's failed re-election effort in 2000, said he met White around the time he defeated Cannon. Stewart said White has since won his respect and become a personal friend.

"He's done more with the Sheriff's Office in three years than imaginable," Stewart said. "He's done an excellent job."

"He's a personal friend, he's a very religious person, and he's an honest man," Stewart said.

Stewart made no apologies for supporting White through family members and through businesses under his control.

"I'm trying to get Bob White elected again," he said. "I'm trying to get him the most money I possibly can."

Stewart said he asked his parents to donate as a personal favor. The technique, called "bundling," is criticized by some.

"I think there was a reason why the Legislature limited the contribution that an individual can make to $500," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, an organization that promotes campaign finance and election reform bills. "I think they recognize there's a problem when a wealthy person or a wealthy corporation is able to give a lot of money to one candidate.

"When people are able to give large sums of money to a candidate," Wilcox said, "the candidate then owes that person access and possibly influence in public policy debates."

Stewart said he supports a variety of candidates _ regardless of their political party _ who he feels "will do the best job for the general public."

"I've never had any influence on them," he said. "I never get any favors."

White, 53, also defended the contributions.

"I know he supports us," White said. "No, I don't see any problem with it."

"I think a lot of people like what we've done," said White, who was sworn into office on Jan. 2, 2001. "I think that everywhere I go people are very pleased with the Sheriff's Office."

White was also asked about the contributions he has received from members of his command staff.

Six members of White's command staff and people who share their addresses gave $500 apiece for a total of $5,500. That's 23 percent of White's contributions for the first reporting period.

During his 2000 campaign, White said it was not a good idea for a sitting sheriff to accept campaign contributions from his subordinates.

But on Thursday he told the Times that guideline does not apply to his command staff.

"I won't be taking contributions from my deputies," White said. "But command staff are different."

"In some ways they're running just like the sheriff," he said. "Because if I'm not here, they're not here."

"Those folks serve at (the sheriff's) pleasure. I think it's their right to support their administration."

So far White is the only candidate who has filed to run in the 2004 election.

Darlene Greene, who retired from the Sheriff's Office as a major after White was elected, has not filed, but says she is considering a bid against him.

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.