Ross Spano acknowledges possible ‘violation’ of campaign finance law

The newly elected congressman made a news release Saturday.
Published Dec. 2, 2018|Updated Dec. 3, 2018

Newly elected congressman Ross Spano has acknowledged that his campaign financing "may have been in violation" of federal law.

In a filing with the Federal Elections Commission which Spano released publicly Saturday afternoon, he acknowledged borrowing $180,000 from two people he has described as personal friends from June through October this year, and then lending his campaign $167,000 in roughly the same time period.

Related: Will Ross Spano face a federal investigation before he even gets to Congress?

When he made the loans to his campaign, Spano said on campaign finance reports that the money came from his "personal funds."

But under federal campaign finance law, a loan made to a candidate with the intent of providing money for a campaign must be considered a campaign contribution, not the candidate's personal funds.

Any such loan must adhere to campaign contribution limits — $2,700 each for the primary and general elections, far less than the loans Spano acknowledges having received.

Several election law experts have said that if Spano's loans to his campaign came from money from money borrowed from friends, it appears to violate campaign finance law.

The purpose of the law, those experts said, is to prevent one or more wealthy individuals from single-handedly financing a candidate for office.

At the time of the loans, Spano "believed he was acting in full compliance with the law" as did the two lenders, "based on the consultations they had at the time," stated a letter to the Commission that was released Saturday afternoon.

But the letter, written by attorney Elliott Berke of Washington, said Spano and the lenders "now recognize that some of the proceeds from the personal loans … may have been in violation of the Federal Campaign Finance Act."

Berke said in the letter that he was submitting it on behalf of Spano and the two people who gave Spano the loans, retiree Karen Hunt of Plant City and businessman Cary Carreno of Valrico.

Spano, currently a state House member from Dover, is himself a lawyer who specializes in wills and probate law.

Spano's Democratic opponent in the congressional District 15 election, Kristen Carlson, has asked for a federal investigation of whether Spano illegally funded his campaign.

His opponent in the Republican primary for the seat, former state Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, has also accused him of breaking the law, but had no comment on whether he was seeking any legal recourse.

Carlson denied that she's pushing the matter just because she lost.

"I don't know if that amount of money would have affected the outcome of my race," she said, "but I really do believe it affected the primary race."

"The elections laws are in place for a reason and they're intended to give the public fair and honest elections."

Berke's letter, which was sent to Assistant General Counsel Jeff Jordan of the Commission, said in response to the problems, Spano has fired his previous campaign accountant and hired Berke's firm and a new accountant.

Jamie C. Jodoin of the St. Petersburg-based Spoor Bunch Franz accounting firm has served previously as the treasurer for Spano's campaign.

In a filing with the Commission last week, Spano listed a new treasurer, Robert Phillips III.

But in an interview Sunday, Jodoin denied that she ever approved using any loan proceeds to fund the campaign.

When Spano loaned money to his campaign, she said, "I was given checks and the only information I received was they were drawn from his personal account."

There are no limits on a candidate's contributions or loans to his own campaign.

Jodoin she didn't find out about the personal loans to Spano until the Times reported on them just before the election. If she had been told that personal loans were the source of his loans to the campaign, she said, she would have researched whether it was legal before putting the money into the campaign.

Jodoin confirmed that she has been fired as campaign treasurer. She said she was told of the firing in a phone call from Carreno the day before Thanksgiving.

Carlson lost to Spano by 6 points in the Nov. 6 election in the district, which covers northeastern Hillsborough, northwestern Polk and southern Lake counties.

The race became one of Florida's most competitive, top-tier congressional races after the retirement of former U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland left the seat open.

Berke's letter said he was making the filing under a Commission rule that allows for lighter penalties if a candidate discovers a mistake or impropriety in campaign finance and voluntarily reports it. But according to the rule,  the commission may consider whether the violation was "knowing and willful," as opposed to an inadvertent error.

It also says the Commission may consider whether the candidate reports the impropriety "before the violation had been or was about to be discovered by any outside party."

In this case, the Tampa Bay Times reported just before the election that Spano had failed to file a personal financial disclosure report due in May that would have revealed the loans from Hunt and Carreno. He filed the disclosure the day after the Times asked him about it.

The Times then reported it appeared the personal loans to Spano may have been the source of his loans to his campaign, and Carlson sent her request for an investigation to the FBI Nov. 15.

In a previous interview, Carlson said Spano's failure to file the financial disclosure suggests "an apparent coverup … which suggests it was intentional, not just a mistake."

In an email Saturday, Spano spokesman Sandi Poreda said he hasn't spoken with any investigators, "nor has he received any letter of inquiry from the (Commission)," but "took the proactive step to voluntarily disclose this information in an effort to rectify the situation as quickly as possible."

The Commission has the power to investigate and impose fines, or it can refer a violation to the Department of Justice for a potential criminal investigation.

The House ethics committee, meanwhile, oversees candidates' financial disclosures and can investigate complaints of violations of disclosure requirements.

With Democrats winning control of the House in the Nov. 6 election, the incoming chairman of the ethics committee is expected to be Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton. A spokesman said Deutch declined comment.

In the letter to the FEC, Spano included copies of promissory notes for the loans that said they would carry 5 percent interest, but didn't state the purpose of the loans.

But the letter said he expects them to be fully repaid by the end of the coming week.