The two candidates gunning for vanquished County Commissioner Norm Roche's seat are hurling allegations at each other.
Democrat Pat Gerard on Tuesday accused Republican state Rep. Ed Hooper of peddling his influence as a state legislator through his ownership of a Clearwater-based consulting firm.
Hooper denied that clients of the Consus Group LLC have benefited from action he has taken as a state lawmaker. He then accused Gerard, who serves as Largo's mayor, of soliciting campaign donations while representing her city at a Florida League of Cities event in Tallahassee in April.
"That's simply not true," said Gerard's campaign manager, Tom Alte. "I think (Hooper's) concerned he's been tied to Tallahassee in this way, and he's trying to distract."
Hooper has served in the state House since 2006 and must leave due to term limits. He beat Republican County Commission incumbent Norm Roche in last week's District 2 primary by capturing nearly 64 percent of the vote. Hooper and Gerard will meet in the Nov. 4 general election.
Hooper co-founded the Consus Group with businessman Joe Burdette in 2001 after serving as a Clearwater city commissioner from 1996 to 2000. The lobbying and consulting firm helps developers and other clients in the local zoning and permitting process. The company works exclusively in Pinellas County, primarily in Clearwater and Clearwater Beach, and worked on several hotel and condo projects, Hooper said.
Hooper has said that he will sell his ownership in the company if elected to the County Commission.
In a news release Tuesday, Gerard accused Hooper of peddling his influence as a legislator. She pointed to financial disclosure forms that show Hooper made about $278,000 from the company during his tenure in Tallahassee while serving as chairman of the House's Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
"This is the equivalent of insider trading," Gerard said in a news release Tuesday. "Ed was paid by the taxpayers to work for us, not to sell his influence and access under the table to the highest bidder. He was paid over $275,000 by the Consus Group while he was chairing an appropriations committee and voting on legislation in Tallahassee that awarded billions in taxpayer money. That's a pretty big conflict."
Alte said the campaign has not found a specific example of how Hooper's positions benefitted a client.
Hooper said they won't be able to.
"Tallahassee doesn't make any planning or permitting decisions," he said. "They're just slinging a little mud to see what sticks."
In an interview Tuesday, Hooper said Gerard didn't meet with him or other Pinellas legislators while in Tallahassee on April 1 and 2 for the Florida League of Cities Legislative Action Days, but did make calls to at least two lobbyists, Ron Book and Martha Edenfield, to raise money for her campaign.
"If I were a citizen of Largo, I'd be very mad that she's using taxpayer dollars to send her to Tallahassee to advocate on behalf of Largo and she doesn't visit anybody who can do anything for Largo," he said.
Alte provided a schedule that shows Gerard traveled to Tallahassee the morning of April 1, attended a luncheon and an afternoon reception and spent the night at the Four Points Sheraton. According to the schedule, she attended a League breakfast the next morning, then spent several hours in the Capitol building. Alte said Gerard met with at least one Pinellas legislator, Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena.
After that, her work with the League was over, Alte said, and she met with the state Democratic Party officials on her own time for about an hour before returning to Largo.
City records show Gerard was reimbursed $334.88 for one night's hotel stay, some meals and mileage.
Book, whose clients include the Pinellas County Commission, said Gerard called him April 1 and asked to meet later that day.
"She didn't reach out to me to talk about issues," Book said. "She simply called me about raising money for her campaign."
Book, who is a friend of Hooper's, said he told Gerard that he has contributed to Hooper and declined to help.
Edenfield, who also lobbies for the Pinellas Commission, did not return a message Tuesday.
Alte denied that Gerard solicited donations while on the trip.
"Mayor Gerard maintained the highest ethical standards for her trip representing Largo," Alte said. "I think voters can see pretty clearly the lengths Hooper and his Tallahassee allies will go to distract from his quarter-million-dollar, pay-to-play scheme."
Contact Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.