Democrats question eligibility of Republican seeking Florida congressional seat

They say Jerry Torres, who is challenging Democrat Kathy Castor, couldn’t have signed candidate oath.
Jerry Torres
Jerry Torres [ Courtesy of Jerry Torres ]
Published June 29, 2022|Updated June 29, 2022

Democrats are suing to disqualify Jerry Torres, a wealthy, self-funding Republican, from running against U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, on the grounds that his legally required candidate oath wasn’t valid.

In a lawsuit, the state Democratic Party and prominent Democrat Sean Shaw of Tampa, along with a Republican voter identified as Thomas Hodges of Hillsborough County, say Torres’s oath couldn’t have been legally signed — in part because he was in West Africa at the time of the purported signing.

Meanwhile, a second Republican running against Castor, Tampa public relations executive James Judge, successfully sued to be restored to the ballot Wednesday after being disqualified by the state Division of Elections.

During the qualifying period, Judge filed the oath written for state and local candidates rather than the one for candidates for federal offices including Congress. The state Division of Elections initially listed him as a qualified candidate on its website, but then notified him he was disqualified after the qualifying period ended, when it was too late to correct the error.

He said in a lawsuit his incorrect filing resulted from confusing directions from the elections division and could easily have been corrected if he had been notified in time, which he said the law requires the division to do.

A Tallahassee judge issued a temporary injunction Wednesday ordering Hillsborough and Pinellas county elections officials to include Judge’s name on the Aug. 23 primary ballot.

At least one other Florida Republican congressional candidate, Scotty Moore, running in the Orlando-area District 9, was disqualified for the same reason, and said on his Facebook page that he intended to sue as well.

Mark Herron, attorney for the Democrats in the lawsuit involving Torres, attended the Wednesday hearing in the Judge case and said there is a possibility of a final hearing on a permanent injunction before the primary.

Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer, said mail ballots and overseas military ballots were being sent to printers this week, and will include both Judge’s and Torres’ names.

If Torres is disqualified, she said, the supervisors would put notices in polling places and in ballot mailings saying he isn’t a qualified candidate and that votes for him won’t be counted.

Torres, a Lakeland defense contractor, has vowed to spend up to $15 million of his own money on the race. Torres declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the allegations in the Democrats’ lawsuit.

State records show he filed three different versions of the candidate oath, one on June 15, two days before the end of the qualifying period, and two on the morning of June 17, just before the noon qualifying deadline.

According to the lawsuit, the first oath was rejected, apparently because the notarization form says Torres appeared online to swear it, but it bears a written signature, not an online signature.

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The second oath, dated June 16 and hand-delivered at 8:24 a.m. June 17, also was rejected, apparently because much of the notarization section of the form is illegible, the lawsuit says.

The third oath was hand-delivered at 11:42 a.m. June 17, minutes before the deadline. It was also dated June 16, even though it apparently was made in response to rejection of the prior oath, which didn’t occur until the morning of June 17, the lawsuit says.

Meanwhile, tweets on Torres’ Twitter account indicate he was in Sierra Leone at the time, the lawsuit says. Tweets dated June 15-17 show photos of Torres meeting with Sierra Leone citizens and officials to discuss cybersecurity and charitable projects.

The signatures on all three oaths appear precisely identical, the lawsuit says. All three are notarized by notaries from the state of Mississippi, which doesn’t allow notaries to practice out of state, the lawsuit says.

Torres’s business includes worldwide travel, he has told the Tampa Bay Times.

Herron said a scheduling hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday.

Castor also faces a primary challenger, Christopher Bradley, who had raised $27,445 as of March, including a $15,000 loan from himself.

A third Republican, Samar “Sam” Nashagh, filed a year ago but has not reported raising any campaign money.

A Division of Elections spokeswoman said that the division won’t comment on litigation.

Judge said the issues likely arose because of “Democratic operatives” combing through Republicans’ qualifying documents looking for technical errors.

Castor spokesman Clay Phillips, asked whether her campaign was involved, responded, “The documents are right there online for all the world to see, and the lawsuit was filed by the Democratic Party.”

Asked about his involvement, Shaw said, “I’m a supporter of our congresswoman, and if her opponent hasn’t done her paperwork correctly, I want to make sure we’re able to take advantage of that.”