LAKELAND — Reports that Rep. Ross Spano faces a criminal investigation over his 2018 campaign have spawned talk of a possible challenge in next year’s Republican primary election.
Spano, a first-term Republican from Dover, has faced scrutiny since the November 2018 election over loans from friends that he converted into donations to his campaign totaling about $174,000. He had been facing an inquiry by the U.S. House Ethics Committee, and on Nov. 14 the committee announced it was deferring to the federal Department of Justice as it conducts a criminal investigation.
Neil Combee, a Lakeland resident and former state legislator who lost to Spano in the 2018 primary, said he has heard of a few Republicans considering a run against Spano in next year’s primary.
“I do know that they have talked to me and some of their friends have talked to me,” Combee said. “There are more discussions and more consideration since it was announced there is a criminal investigation. I think that certainly caused people to start looking at the possibility and what they would need to do.”
Spano’s office did not respond to a request from The Ledger for comment.
Spano, a former state legislator, led all Republicans in fundraising for the House District 15 race and won the primary before defeating Democrat Kristen Carlson of Lakeland in the general election. The district covers northern Polk County and parts of Hillsborough and Lake counties.
Questions about Spano’s finances arose around the time of the November 2018 general election. Media outlets drew attention to a series of loans totaling $180,000 that Spano received from two friends, Cary Carreno and Karen Hunt.
Spano gave his campaign $174,000 in the same period, saying it came from personal funds. Under federal law, funds originating as loans to a candidate must be classified as campaign contributions, and those donations are limited to $2,700 per election cycle.
A month after the general election, Spano’s lawyer sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission acknowledging that he may have violated the Federal Campaign Finance Act. In the letter, Spano’s lawyer said he “believed he was acting in full compliance with the law” and had followed the advice of a campaign treasurer, who had been dismissed.
The former treasurer disputed that account, saying he had been given the checks and told only that they came from Spano’s personal account.
Spano has repeatedly said any violations were inadvertent and has emphasized that his campaign “self-reported” the problems, though that action followed media reports. In late November 2018, Carlson asked the FBI to investigate Spano’s campaign activities.
The FBI has not said publicly whether it is investigating Spano. The congressman has said he has since repaid the loans to Carreno and Hunt.
The Office of Congressional Ethics referred a review of Spano in August to the House Ethics Committee. The committee’s leaders decided in September to continue the committee’s review.
The committee announced Nov. 14 that it was deferring action at the request of the Department of Justice, which had launched an investigation. The committee’s statement said its decision to defer action does not indicate that it had found evidence of a violation.
Waiting for word
Combee, who finished second to Spano in the 2018 primary, said he hasn’t considered running again next year.
“I have not, and I have said all along that until this is settled and done — because what I don’t know and what I don’t think anybody knows is if it will be a ‘don’t ever let this happen again’ (ruling) and a $5 fine, or if they wind up with the maximum penalty, which means if you’re found guilty you get time in prison,” Combee said. “The range is so big and nobody knows what’s going to happen. I would not do anything until this is settled.”
Combee declined to name any of the potential Republican challengers. He said some seem content to wait and only enter the race if Spano is removed from office, while others seem prepared to launch campaigns even before the investigation is completed.
Sean Harper, a Lakeland resident who finished third in the 2018 Republican primary, said he doesn’t plan to challenge Spano. Among other Republican contenders in 2018, Ed Shoemaker of Lakeland is running for the Polk County School Board, and Danny Kushmer of Brandon did not respond to a message from The Ledger.
Susan McManus, a distinguished professor of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida, said she hasn’t heard of any potential primary challenges to Spano. But she said the tactic of “primarying” incumbents has become more common nationally.
Even if no primary opponents emerge, McManus said a lingering investigation could hinder Spano’s reelection campaign.
“For one thing, it makes people who might normally publicly support him less likely to do so,” she said. “They may still support him, but they’re not going to be out there chanting his name, and it usually does affect fundraising. But then again, he’s an incumbent, so he does have name recognition.”
Spano reported nearly $502,000 in contributions through Sept. 30, including $174,000 from political committees representing the likes of the Mosaic Company and the NRA and such Republican-aligned groups as Huck PAC, founded by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
He received about $108,000 in transfers from Take Back the House 2020, a PAC supporting Republican candidates.
Spano had spent nearly $433,000 through Sept. 30, leaving him with cash on hand of about $71,000. The spending included a repayment of $110,000 in loans to himself.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified District 15 as one of its top national priorities for 2020. Spano won by 6 percentage points in a district Donald Trump had carried by 10 points in the 2016 presidential election.
Five Democrats have registered to run in District 15, including state legislator Adam Hattersley of Riverview and Alan Cohn, a former TV reporter from Tampa. Hattersley, who only filed to run in late July, led all Democrats with about $114,000 in contributions through Sept. 30.
Support in Polk
J.C. Martin, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party, said he had heard “no gossip or even inquiries” on a primary threat to Spano.
“We’re still fully supportive of Congressman Spano, and I think when everything is said and done he will end up being cleared,” Martin said. “I’ve discussed it with him. ... He’s been up front that they found an error and they self-reported the issue. While people have been trying to leverage it for political reasons, it was more or less an error they caught and fixed.”
Martin said the local party will host a clay shoot fundraiser with Spano and Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, on Feb. 8 in Haines City.
Spano drew endorsements in the 2018 primary from three Polk County Commissioners, in what was seen as a snub of Combee, the Polk County candidate. One of the three, George Lindsey, said he has not heard a mention of a Republican challenge to Spano next year.
“My commitment and support is unwavering,” Lindsey said. “The issue was self-reported back when it occurred, and it’s going through the normal process that those kinds of thing would have to be resolved, and I expect it to be resolved, hopefully soon, so as not to cloud the issue.”
McManus said it isn’t clear whether potential voters accept Spano’s explanation that any violations he committed were inadvertent.
“That argument is often most effective initially, but the more things linger the more questions pop up, and that’s why people in such situations hope for a quick resolution of any outstanding claims about their campaign,” she said.
Combee made it clear he doesn’t buy Spano’s excuse that any possible violations of campaign-finance rules were unintentional. Combee noted that Spano, a lawyer, originally filed to run for Florida attorney general before joining the congressional race.
“I mean, the guy wanted to be Florida’s attorney general, which is Florida’s top law enforcement officer, yet with all the people he had around him and all the money he was paying out to consultants, he didn’t have anyone around him able to tell him — if you believe this — ‘You can’t do this. That’s illegal’,” Combee said. “That’s awfully hard for anyone with half a brain to believe.”