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William March: Two new complaints filed against Ross Spano

Two new complaints have been filed against Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, alleging that his 2018 campaign is continuing to violate federal law by failing to return contributions it knew were illegal. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times (2017)]
Two new complaints have been filed against Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, alleging that his 2018 campaign is continuing to violate federal law by failing to return contributions it knew were illegal. [SCOTT KEELER | Times (2017)]
Published Aug. 6

Two new complaints have been filed against Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, alleging that his 2018 campaign is continuing to violate federal law by failing to return contributions it knew were illegal.

The complaints were filed by the same person who filed an earlier complaint to the Federal Elections Commission concerning the allegedly illegal contributions themselves, Jan Barrow, president of the Lakeland Democratic Women's Club.

Her new complaints went to the FEC and the Office of Congressional Ethics, a non-partisan body established by the House to review allegations of misconduct by members or staff. The OCE can investigate complaints and refer them to the House Committee on Ethics.

The complaints arose because from June-October 2018, Spano borrowed $180,000 from two friends, Carey Carreno and Karen Hunt, and then, on dates roughly corresponding to those loans, he in turn loaned $167,000 to his campaign, which he reported as coming from "personal funds."

Campaign finance law says a candidate can give or loan his campaign any amount of personal funds. But a loan from a friend or relative for the purpose of providing money to the campaign is considered a contribution from the lender and is subject to contribution limits, which were $2,700, said Adav Noti, a former FEC assistant general counsel now with the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center.

In a Nov. 30 letter to the FEC, sent after the Times reported on the loans, Spano's lawyers said he "believed he was acting in full compliance with the law … based on consultations he had at the time," but then learned that the contributions "may have been in violation" of federal campaign finance laws."

Spano says he has since repaid Hunt and Carreno with the proceeds of a bank loan to himself. His personal financial disclosure shows a December, 2018 loan of up to $250,000 from Center State Bank.

Noti said a bank loan can be a permissible source of campaign funds, depending on the loan terms. But Spano's campaign has not reported receiving the proceeds of the bank loan nor repaying Hunt and Carreno, and Spano has not filed legally required FEC forms detailing the loan terms.

The complaints cite the letter from Spano's lawyers to the FEC as evidence that he knew at least by November 2018 the loans were illegal contributions.

Under federal law, the complaints say, if a campaign learns it has received an illegal contribution, it has 30 days to "disgorge" the contribution by returning it to the donor.

The OCE complaint alleges that Spano knew all along he was violating the law, saying, "It appears that Rep. Spano … engaged in a fraudulent and reckless scheme to funnel contributions well in excess of federal limits to his own campaign."

Barrow said she is "just an individual citizen that is sick and tired of politicians getting away with things. I want an integrity-filled person representing the constituents, and I don't think Ross Spano is that person.

"I think he is making a calculated decision that this will get swept under the rug or nobody's paying attention. I think he had full intent of doing it."

She noted that Spano, a lawyer, initially ran for state attorney general before switching to the Congressional District 15 race.

"You can't say on one hand that you're a lawyer and run for attorney general and say your experience (in the state Legislature) prepares you to serve, and then say you didn't know the law," she said.

Spano campaign spokeswoman Sandi Poreda responded via email Monday that the new complaints "are obviously politically motivated," referring to Barrow's political activity.

"The FEC is looking into the situation with the loans and as soon as they provide us with guidance, we'll know what steps to take next."

Spano didn't respond to a Times request for comment, but told a WFLA-TV interviewer Sunday the accusation that he purposely broke the law is "absolutely false," citing the letter of admission his lawyers sent to the FEC.

"I made an honest mistake. … When I found out about the potential problem, I immediately self-reported … to the FEC," he said. "Now we're working with the FEC to make sure we're in compliance."

Barrow said she emailed the OCE complaint Saturday and the FEC complaint was due for Federal Express delivery Tuesday.

Local Republicans on shootings

Hillsborough County Republican Party Chairman Jim Waurishuk's Facebook post Monday in the aftermath of the weekend's mass shootings: "Democrats do pray … they pray for violence, devastation, & destruction of mass shootings! Why? For the sole purpose of Fundraising!!!"

On Facebook, the comment got about a dozen "likes" and at least one angry, obscene response.

Democratic Chairman Ione Townsend responded, "Democrats do pray — we pray for peace, we pray for unity, and we pray that Republicans will stop this hateful rhetoric."

Meanwhile, in a Brian Stelter tweet, CNN blasted 49 Republican Congress members, including Hillsborough Reps. Ross Spano and Vern Buchanan and Sen. Rick Scott, for refusing to go on air Monday to talk about the shootings.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com.

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