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No misuse of tax dollars in Greenlight Pinellas educational campaign, report finds

ST. PETERSBURG — State investigators have found no wrongdoing in how the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority spent public money to inform voters about a mass transit referendum that will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The Greenlight Pinellas campaign proposes a 1-cent sales tax increase to build a $1.9 billion light-rail system from Clearwater to St. Petersburg and expand the bus system.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Greenlight opponents have alleged that the PSTA improperly spent $800,000 of taxpayer money to lobby for the proposal. The agency said the money went for educational outreach, such as a website, to offer voters information about the proposal.

After nearly two months of investigating PSTA records, the state Department of Transportation's inspector general agreed.

"Our review disclosed no evidence PSTA campaign expenditures violated the advocacy provisions of state law," the report said. Communications on the agency's Greenlight Pinellas "website, advertisements and promotional items contained no text prohibited by law nor any 'magic words' which would expressly advocate for electors to vote 'yes' on the referendum," the report said.

State money also was not used for these educational materials, the inspector general said. About $620,525 was spent, the report said. Some came from federal grants, authorized by Washington. The rest came from local PSTA funds.

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at