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Shadow groups played heavy role in Tampa council campaign attack mailers

Elected officials, business interests, pumped nearly $200,000 into those groups.
 
Vote signs are seen near precincts 221 and 219 at Al Lopez Park on election day, April 25, in Tampa. Shadowy groups pumped big money into the races amid low turnout.
Vote signs are seen near precincts 221 and 219 at Al Lopez Park on election day, April 25, in Tampa. Shadowy groups pumped big money into the races amid low turnout. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published May 24, 2023

Tampa donors, including Mayor Jane Castor and business interests, put big donations into shell political committees in the most recent election cycle. Some of those groups were linked to semi-anonymous committees that unleashed an onslaught of negative mailers during the recently concluded Tampa City Council elections, according to new campaign finance reports.

Castor, Jeff Vinik, Sheriff Chad Chronister, TECO, the Related Group and others fed nearly $200,000 into independent political committees, some of which later gave to others that did the mail attacks, the reports show.

But exactly whose money paid for ads may never be certain.

Florida’s lax campaign finance laws allow the committees — often simply checking accounts controlled by political operatives and registered with the state — to transfer money among themselves, hiding the original sources that pay for attack ads. Several candidates can funnel money for various purposes through the same committee.

The committees can also receive unlimited donations while campaigns face contribution limits.

The new reports show that during March and April a committee named Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy got donations, including $60,000 from Castor’s political committee, Tampa Strong; $50,000 from Chronister’s committee, Friends of Chad Chronister; $10,000 from a Vinik-related corporation; $5,000 each from TECO and EWI Construction Inc.; and $1,000 from former Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s One

Florida Committee.

On April 7, Citizens Alliance gave $95,000 to a committee named Save Our Quality of Life, which sent out at least half a dozen mailers attacking council member Bill Carlson. Both committees are linked to local Republican political operative Anthony Pedicini, who has worked for Chronister and others.

Vinik’s company also gave $25,000 to Citizens for a United Florida, a committee associated with Fort Lauderdale lawyer and Democratic donor Jason Blank, a longtime supporter of unsuccessful council candidate and former state Sen. Janet Cruz.

Citizens for a United Florida later gave $20,000 to another Blank committee, Comite Politico, that sent out around 10 mailers attacking Cruz’s opponent, council member Lynn Hurtak.

Local political experts say $20,000 wouldn’t have paid for Comite Politico’s anti-Hurtak mailers, but the committee hasn’t reported any other substantial contributions or substantial spending since October.

Comite Politico has reported spending more money than it had received since it formed in 2018, as has Citizens for a United Florida, formed in 2018.

Another committee linked to Blank, Making Florida Better, received $44,000 in April from Tampa sources, including $27,000 from Castor’s Tampa Strong and smaller amounts from the Related Group and others.

As of April 31, Making Florida Better had spent all but about $19,500 of its receipts, with much of its recent spending going for “mail media consulting,” reports show.

Newly elected council member Alan Clendenin acknowledged he used that committee to pay political operatives working for his campaign, including one of the consultants listed, but said none of the April contributions paid for his mailers.

Most of the Tampa donors and political operatives involved, including Cruz, Vinik, the Related Group and Blank, didn’t return messages for comment or declined to discuss their donations.

Asked about Tampa Strong’s contributions, Castor spokesperson Ashley Walker said only, “All our contributions were fully reported as legally required and we didn’t give to any entities that did any negative campaigning.” She declined to say the purpose of Tampa Strong’s donations to the committees.

But Chronister, a longtime supporter of Cruz and council incumbent Charlie Miranda — although they’re both Democrats and Chronister is a Republican — willingly discussed his involvement.

He said he gave money at Cruz’s request, and to pay for advertising against Hoyt Prindle, who challenged Miranda. Chronister was angry at Prindle because of attack ads against Miranda that linked the longtime council member to Chronister. The ads sought to portray Miranda to voters in his Democratic-leaning West Tampa council district as an

anti-abortion Republican.

The contributions and spending revealed in the new reports, which run through April, likely don’t cover all the unprecedented spending by outside political committees in the council races. Future reports may show more.