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Last-minute robocalls from each side push legal limits in Todd Marks-Aakash Patel race

Marks is threatening litigation and complaints have been filed with local authorities as a result. According to those who have received the calls, they began over the weekend and were continuing Tuesday.
 
Todd Marks, a Republican running for Hillsborough County Commission District 7, puts signs in the ground after voting on Tuesday at Precinct 500, the Westchase Swim and Tennis Center. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Todd Marks, a Republican running for Hillsborough County Commission District 7, puts signs in the ground after voting on Tuesday at Precinct 500, the Westchase Swim and Tennis Center. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Aug. 28, 2018

Last-minute dirty campaign tricks, including possibly illegal, anonymous robocalls, have popped up in what may be the nastiest of several negative Republican primary elections in Hillsborough County, the countywide commissioner's race between Todd Marks and Aakash Patel.

Marks is threatening litigation and complaints have been filed with local authorities as a result.

According to those who have received the calls, they began over the weekend and were continuing Tuesday.

Aakash Patel, founder and president of Elevate Inc., is running for Hillsborough County Commission. [Times files]
Aakash Patel, founder and president of Elevate Inc., is running for Hillsborough County Commission. [Times files]
In one robocall, a speaker pretending to represent the Hillsborough County Young Democrats appears to promote Patel, saying he supports “Democratic candidates in our county and rejects the right-wing Trump platform,” and wants to spend “a few billion” in tax dollars on light rail and a new baseball stadium. That a message clearly aims at alienating Republican primary voters.

Another trashed "Todd Marijuana Marks," and local Republicans said it was left on their voicemails with no indication of who paid for it, a violation of campaign finance law.

"Attention Hillsborough conservatives," it says. "Do you love Obama? Hidden liberal Todd Marijuana Marks does … strongly advocates and profits from the sale of illegal marijuana."

Marks and Patel both disclaimed responsibility for the attacks.

Alvin Jin, president of the county Young Democrats, said the group isn't responsible for the calls using his group's name, and he's filed complaints with the State Attorney's Office and the Elections Supervisor's Office.

That call left the phone number of the county Democratic Party office, which county party Chairwoman Ione Townsend said has resulted in hundreds of calls to the office from angry Republicans, starting Monday afternoon.

Marks said the calls attacking him are "defamatory and false," and he's preparing a lawsuit to try to find the authors.

The lawsuit would name a committee that has sent out mailers using the "Marijuana Marks" line, but Marks said he's not blaming Patel unless litigation uncovers a link to his opponent.

"There are zealous people out there doing stuff that the campaigns aren't approving," he said. "The frustrating part is people think it's the campaign. I'm going to find out the identity of these trolls and bring it out."

Marks acknowledges his campaign has criticized Patel, but said he has done so openly, in mailers that carry disclaimers saying his campaign is responsible.

"I've kept it about ideology, not defamatory statements and false attacks," he said.

Marks has previously blamed consultant Ralph Arza of Miami, who has been employed by Patel's campaign, for similar attacks against him; Arza didn't respond to requests for comment.

Patel, meanwhile, blamed political consultants working for Marks, Sam Rashid and Anthony Pedicini, for the attacks against himself.

"When you work against Anthony Pedicini and Sam Rashid, this is what happens," he said. "I've tried to stay positive, knocking on doors, going out into the community and speaking to voters. If a committee supporting me attacks back, there's nothing I can do about."

Rashid has disclaimed knowledge of the attacks against Patel and Pedicini hasn't responded to messages for comment.