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  1. Florida Politics

PAC linked to GOP campaign firms funded attack ads in Tampa council race

A flier sent before the runoff tried to link Guido Maniscalco to taxes owed by a jewelry store owned by his grandmother.
A flier sent before the runoff tried to link Guido Maniscalco to taxes owed by a jewelry store owned by his grandmother.
Published Apr. 14, 2015

TAMPA — A Tallahassee-based political action committee with ties to Republican campaign firms is now listed as the major donor to Moving Tampa Forward, the mysterious group whose attack ads stirred up last month's City Council runoff between Guido Maniscalco and Jackie Toledo.

The Committee for Responsible Representation gave $16,500 of Moving Tampa Forward's $23,500 in contributions, according to a report filed late Friday with the Florida Division of Elections. The other $7,000 came from a law firm run by former Fort Myers Mayor Wilbur C. Smith III.

The chairman of the Committee for Responsible Representation is listed as William S. Jones, who is involved in more than two dozen political committees or electioneering organizations registered with the state.

Jones, who goes by Stafford Jones, runs the Gainesville political consulting and polling firm War Room Logistics and chairs the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee. He did not return calls Monday from the Tampa Bay Times.

The Committee for Responsible Representation operated as an electioneering communications organization (ECO) from 2009 until February, when it disbanded and transferred funds to a political committee with the same name, address, chairman and telephone number.

In January, the Committee for Responsible Representation received $178,000 from another Jones-affiliated committee, the Sunshine State Conservatives, which over the past five years has taken in $455,000, more than half from businesses tied to Jacksonville builder David Hutson.

As an ECO, the Committee for Responsible Representation spent money with Republican campaign consultants such as Data Targeting, Electioneering Consulting, SRCP Media of Virginia and Jones' own firm, War Room Logistics.

Along with Data Targeting and Electioneering Consulting, Toledo campaign consultant Anthony Pedicini was previously involved in email discussions that took place in an effort to circumvent the state's constitutional ban on gerrymandered legislative districts.

Maniscalco said Monday that he paid about $5,000 per mailer, so he doesn't see how $23,500 would cover the cost of Moving Tampa Forward's mailers, which included several pro-Toledo pieces, three that attacked him and another that attacked both him and a third candidate, Tommy Castellano.

"It just doesn't seem like enough money to cover all those mailers," he said.

While Tampa municipal elections are officially nonpartisan, the Maniscalco-Toledo race had a sharp partisan edge.

Maniscalco, a Democrat, benefited from attack ads against Toledo, a Republican, sent out by the Florida Democratic Party. He said neither he nor his campaign worked with the Democratic Party to coordinate their activities.

Moving Tampa Forward recorded its contribution from the Committee for Responsible Representation on March 2, the day before the municipal election. That was after two Moving Tampa Forward mailers had arrived in mailboxes touting Toledo and bashing her opponents.

Going into the runoff, Moving Tampa Forward's most pointed flier sought to tie Maniscalco to state tax liens assessed against his family's jewelry store at a time when it was owned by his grandmother.

That attack prompted four Tampa City Council members to take the unusual step of publicly denouncing anonymous, third-party attacks and calling on voters to send a message by rejecting them.

Toledo and Pedicini have said they had nothing to do with Moving Tampa Forward, whose chairman is listed as Auston Cianflone at an address in student housing at Hillsborough Community College. HCC doesn't have a student named Auston Cianflone, but it does have an Auston Molina.

And Auston Molina's Facebook page has connections named Cianflone and a link to Pedicini's 35th birthday party, with tagged photos Molina and Pedicini. In addition, a fax sent to the state by the committee bears a time-stamp matching similar communications for another Pedicini-affiliated committee.

Despite being outspent nearly 3-to-1, not including spending by third parties, Maniscalco defeated Toledo in the March 24 runoff by 151 votes. That's about 2 percent of the 7,311 votes cast in council District 6, which covers West Tampa and parts of Seminole Heights and South Tampa.

"It just seems interesting that all this Tallahassee money was being pumped into a city of Tampa (City Council) district race," Maniscalco said. "You would think that something like this would be reserved for something more statewide."

Richard Danielson can be reached at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.