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  1. Hillsborough

William March: Fundraising issues for Congressman Ross Spano continue

Rep. Ross Spano’s latest campaign finance report doesn’t include forms experts say are legally required concerning a bank loan he says he used to repay what may have been illicit loan funds that fueled his 2018 race. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times (2017)]
Rep. Ross Spano’s latest campaign finance report doesn’t include forms experts say are legally required concerning a bank loan he says he used to repay what may have been illicit loan funds that fueled his 2018 race. [SCOTT KEELER | Times (2017)]
Published Jul. 24, 2019

Rep. Ross Spano's latest campaign finance reports continue to show his campaign owing more money than it has. Meanwhile, his entanglements with campaign finance regulations may be continuing.

His latest report doesn't include forms experts say are legally required concerning a bank loan he says he used to repay what may have been illicit loan funds that fueled his 2018 race.

Spano's report for the first six months of this year shows his re-election campaign with $160,428 in cash after raising $376,041, but with debts of $176,857.

Most of that, $169,500, is owed to Spano himself, from loans he made to the campaign in 2018. The money helped him beat Neal Combee in a primary and Democrat Kristen Carlson in the general election.

Spano loaned his campaign that money after borrowing $180,000 from two friends. But he reported that the money came from his own "personal funds." Money from any source other than the candidate must meet contribution limits, which were $2,700.

After news reports revealed the situation, Spano acknowledged in a letter to the Federal Election Commission that the loans may have violated campaign finance rules.

Spano says he has since repaid the loans to his friends, using a bank loan. His latest personal financial disclosure shows a loan of up to $250,000 obtained in December from Center State Bank.

Bank loans can be a permissible source of money for a candidate to contribute to his campaign, depending on the terms and conditions of the loan, said campaign finance expert Nancy Watkins, a Republican with no ties to the Spano campaign. That could mean, "The original impermissible source has been repaid by a permissible source," she said.

But the loan terms are required to be reported to the FEC. Spano failed to include forms reporting those terms in FEC reports filed in January, April and July. The reports continued to say his loans to his campaign were from "personal funds," which isn't correct if the source is a bank loan, Watkins said.

Asked why Spano filed no information on the bank loan, spokeswoman Sandi Poreda responded via email, "Ross has been very forthright and transparent that he made an honest mistake on how he treated the personal loan that benefited his campaign; it was a legal loan that simply wasn't handled appropriately. He self-reported to the FEC and is working through that process with them. Until that process is completed, we won't have anything further to say."

But the absence of any filing on the bank loan could suggest another problem.

FEC regulations require that if a campaign receives a contribution which it later finds to be illegal, it must either return it to the donor or give it to the U.S. Treasury within 30 days after discovering the illegality.

On his financial disclosure, Spano has reported repaying the loans from his friends, but the campaign hasn't reported receiving the proceeds of the bank loan or giving back the contributions it acknowledged could be illegal.

Hattersley, Learned expected to switch races

He won't confirm it publicly, but look for state Rep. Adam Hattersley, D-Riverview, to announce Monday that he'll leave his state House seat after a single term to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Ross Spano of Dover.

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He'll be the second Tampa Bay area state House member in a week to give up a likely safe re-election to challenge a sitting Republican Congress member. Rep. Margaret Good, R-Sarasota, announced last week she'll leave her District 72 seat to mount an underdog challenge to entrenched Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, who represents southern Hillsborough.

Some Democrats fear they could lose the hard-won state legislative seats and still not win the congressional seats.

Hattersley's narrow 2018 win gave Democrats a prized beachhead in conservative East Hillsborough in a district long represented by Republicans, including Spano and Ronda Storms.

Spano may be a tough opponent despite unresolved campaign finance irregularities. He's been a Trump loyalist, and GOP leaders, clearly determined to hold his seat, are providing heavy financial support.

Andrew Learned, who's currently filed to run against Spano, is expected to switch races to run for Hattersley's state House seat.

Hillsborough Democratic Party Chairman Ione Townsend has expressed concern about the switch, but said this week, "I think we're going to hold that (state House) seat. It would be easier with an incumbent, but I think we'll win it for the same reasons we won it in 2018" — the district's changing demographics and anger over GOP politics at the national level.

Republican lawyer Michael Owen is off to a strong fundraising start in the district, and faces a primary against Melissa Haskins.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com.

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