William March: Tom Lee frees up PAC money for Congress run, but could he use it?

The Thonotosassa Republican disbanded his state committee without saying where its $2.4 million will go. Whether it's available for a federal race is open to question.
Tom Lee and Ross Spano, shown here at their alma mater Brandon High School, may face off in the primary for the open Congressional District 15 seat. [Times files (2013)]
Tom Lee and Ross Spano, shown here at their alma mater Brandon High School, may face off in the primary for the open Congressional District 15 seat. [Times files (2013)]
Published April 27, 2018|Updated April 27, 2018

State Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, switching from the state attorney general's race to a race for Congress, will walk away from around $100,000 in campaign money because of the different fundraising regulations for state and federal offices.

But Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who's considering running for the same congressional seat, may be seeking to use some $2.4 million in his political committee, called The Conservative.

Lee filed papers Thursday disbanding the committee, without saying where the money will go. He couldn't be reached for comment.

That could be the first step in converting it into a superPAC to conduct independent expenditures for a congressional race.

That would make Lee the heavyweight in the race, but there could also be legal hurdles.

Federal law doesn't allow coordination between a campaign and a superPAC, and the timing of the conversion could be considered in deciding whether there was coordination, said Jessica Furst Johnson, a campaign finance lawyer who works with Spano consultant Brock Mikosky.

Asked whether the Spano campaign would oppose the move, Mikosky said, "Voters are tired of dark money and want integrity in our elections. We have to decide what role we'll have in maintaining that integrity."

Mikosky said Spano will give donors pro-rated refunds of the remaining money in his campaign and committee accounts. Stricter federal fundraising rules make it impossible to transfer money from a state campaign into a federal race.

Running for open seat, Democrat sees funds spike

The leading Democrat in the race for Congressional District 15, Andrew Learned, said his fundraising has spiked since the announcement by Dennis Ross that he'll leave the seat open.

Learned has announced an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa – an indication of party support – and says national Democrats are considering backing him.

Learned campaign manager Rosalind Moffett said the campaign raised more than $50,000 in two weeks after April 11, when Ross announced his retirement, compared to $122,000 previously for the entire campaign.

Tracking Hillsborough commission votes now easier

Court Clerk Pat Frank has instituted an on-line search system enabling citizen researchers – not to mention reporters and political operatives – to track votes by the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners.

It allows searches for votes by criteria including the subject, date and commissioner's name.

That could be a bonanza for opposition researchers, those who find information on officeholders to use in campaigns, said Tampa-based political pollster Tom Eldon.

"This will make it easier to correlate votes with contributions and track patterns," Eldon said. "If I was in a campaign against an incumbent, that's the first place I'd look."

The search tool, which works off the commissioners' new voting system, goes back to 2016.

Frank said the new tool, at the BOCC web link on the Hillsborough court clerk's home page, supports "our three key values: integrity, transparency and accountability."

Scherberger said it was created in-house using staff time and he couldn't pinpoint the cost of developing it.

Todd Marks hits Aakash Patel as moderate

In an unusual campaign move, Hillsborough County commissioner candidate Todd Marks has sent mailers to the donors of his Republican primary opponent, Aakash Patel, saying Patel isn't a true Republican and suggesting they request contribution refunds.

It's based on a podcast interview in which Patel said, "I'm pro-Hillsborough, I'm pro-Tampa, I'm not a Republican or Democrat philosophy. I've given money to Democrats, I've supported Democrats.

"I'm a Republican, I voted for Donald Trump, I don't regret it," he added.

The mailer said Florida Republicans "have been fooled before" by moderates running as Republicans, an apparent reference to Charlie Crist.

In a statement and interview, Patel called the mailer "egregious" and himself "a strong, conservative Republican."

"Obviously (Marks) hasn't raised as much money as me so he's trying to attack my donors, and some of them are just furious," Patel said.

The mailer included a copy of a state form for seeking campaign donation refunds, already filled in with the donor's name. The form, however, is intended for donors to a candidate who is switching offices.

Marks denied he was attacking or questioning donors.

"What I call into question is not his donors, but his own words that he doesn't subscribe to Republican philosophy," he said. "The question is why he's in the Republican primary."

Patel has been in the race since July and raised more than $400,000. Marks has raised $77,125 since filing in January and is reaching out to the conservative wing of the party.