SANFORD, Fla. — A local Republican Party chairman in Central Florida was found guilty Thursday of a misdemeanor campaign finance violation that prosecutors say was part of a larger scheme to siphon off votes from a Democrat in a state Senate race.
Following the verdict, a judge in Seminole County sentenced Ben Paris to a year of supervised probation, 200 hours of community work and ordered him to pay more than $42,000 for the cost of an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Judge Wayne Culver told Paris that cost could be shared later with other defendants who also were part of the investigation but have not yet been tried.
In May, prosecutors filed charges against Paris, the chairperson of the Seminole County GOP; political consultant James “Eric” Foglesong; and Jestine Iannotti, who prosecutors say ran as an independent candidate in the central Florida state Senate race but did not campaign and had no previous political experience. Prosecutors have described such candidates as “ghost candidates” used by political parties to siphon off votes from opposing candidates.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Iannotti illegally accepted a $1,200 cash donation from Foglesong for her campaign. Iannotti and Foglesong falsely used the names of others as contributors in state campaign finance reports in order to skirt Florida laws on campaign contributions, investigators said.
Paris provided the name and address of his cousin, and Iannotti and Foglesong falsely used them in their official campaign reporting, even though Paris knew his cousin had not contributed to the campaign, according to prosecutors.
Paris works for the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce, which is led by Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur.
Brodeur won the election in which Iannotti ran in 2020. Brodeur won the District 9 race with 50.3% of the vote to Democrat Patricia Sigman’s 47.6%. Iannotti took in 2.1% of the vote.
The Seminole County race was one of three state Senate races where independent candidates filed to run but did not campaign in 2020. The candidates were promoted in an advertising blitz paid for by a dark money nonprofit group run by consultants working closely with Florida Power & Light, according to the Orlando Sentinel.