TAMPA — A picture of City Council candidate Jackie Toledo with a beaming smile that is a staple of her campaign mailers also appears on mailers paid for by Moving Tampa Forward, a mysterious political action committee behind attack advertisements on her rivals.
Some of the group’s mailers were produced by the same Sarasota print shop owner who printed Toledo’s mailers and are on message with her campaign, touting her experience as a traffic engineer.
Campaign workers for her opponent, Guido Maniscalco, say that’s evidence there are ties between the committee and Toledo’s campaign consultant, Anthony Pedicini, a claim Toledo and Pedicini have repeatedly denied. By law, candidates cannot coordinate their campaigns with a PAC.
Regardless, Moving Tampa Forward’s involvement in a low-key City Council race highlights a lack of oversight that makes political committees vehicles for skirting contribution limits and hiding the sources of campaign funds, critics say.
“Election law has weak muscles,” said T. Wayne Bailey, a political science professor at Stetson University. “It places so much responsibility on the public for taking notice and taking action, which is probably an unrealistic expectation.”
Moving Tampa Forward’s murky ownership is an example of how little scrutiny these committees receive.
Officially, the committee was formed Feb. 17 by Auston Cianflone and was originally registered to an address in Hawk’s Landing, a privately run student apartment complex for Hillsborough Community College students.
But HCC officials say there is no Auston Cianflone at the school. There is a student at the complex named Auston Molina, who is connected through Facebook to both Toledo and Pedicini.
Documents filed with the state Division of Elections to register a committee must be signed “under penalties of perjury.”
But officials there say they do not know if Moving Tampa Forward’s registration documents were filed in person or sent by mail. There is no requirement to provide photo identification to register a committee, and agency officials said it’s not their job to verify who is behind a political committee.
“We are an administrative filing agency; we take the documents at face value,” said Mark Ard, a Division of Elections spokesman.
Yet, PACs and election communications organizations, or ECOs, can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the outcomes of high-profile and local races. They are only subject to investigation if a formal complaint is filed with the Florida Elections Commission.
Political groups from both sides of the aisle used ECOs to pay for attack advertisements and mailers in the 2013 non-partisan St. Petersburg mayoral race between Republican incumbent Bill Foster and former Democratic state lawmaker Rick Kriseman.
That included Working Together for Florida, a Tampa electioneering group whose advertisement included an empty chair. The ad stated, “Rick Kriseman has been the man who wasn’t there.”
During the election, the group received a contribution of $100,000 from the Florida Leadership Fund, a committee headed by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
Finding out who is providing the money for Moving Tampa Forward is harder to decipher.
Campaign finance reports filed for Moving Tampa Forward this week show the group received a $7,000 donation from Wilbur Smith Law Firm, a Fort Myers personal injury and criminal defense firm headed by former Fort Myers Mayor Wilbur Smith.
Smith did not return repeated calls for comment.
City council candidates are required to file monthly reports on contributions and spending. In the run-up to the election, the frequency increases to weekly. But PACs only file reports monthly; donors often are not known until after an election.
Bryan Farris, Maniscalco’s campaign manager, said Pedicini is using the PAC to conceal who is donating to help Toledo. He questioned why Moving Tampa Forward’s report fails to list any expenditures even though the committee has paid for at least five mailers.
“My guess is they’ll amend when it’s too late for the public to know,” Farris said. “It’s obvious Ms. Toledo’s campaign is being supported by shady money that her consultant Anthony Pedicini obviously controls.”
Toledo said she has never heard of Smith, the one donor to Moving Tampa Forward. She said Pedicini assured her he is not connected with the group. Her initial contact with Pedicini’s firm, Strategic Image Management, was with Fred Piccolo.
But Toledo admitted that she considered firing Pedicini after reports linked him with the PAC and attack mailers but decided against it because she thought it would disrupt her campaign too close to the election. She said, however, she will not use Pedicini for future campaigns.
On Friday, four City Council members put their name to a letter decrying the negative attack mailers. The letter, which said the council members find “the introduction of third-party attacks that cannot be traced to be a very alarming and destructive development,’’ was sent to The Tampa Tribune and other area newspapers.
PACS have been a factor on several campaigns on which Pedicini, who did not return calls seeking comment, has worked.
In the 2008 House District 69 race, Preserving Florida for our Children paid for mailers taking shots at Democrat Keith Fitzgerald, who was running against Republican Laura Benson.
The group was formed by two registered Tampa Republicans, Jimmy and Courtney Congelio. Pedicini, who was then working for Benson, was friends on Facebook with Courtney Congelio, according to a story in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.
Benson said she wasn’t aware of Pedicini having any involvement with the group and she was happy with his work on the campaign.
In the 2011 Tampa mayoral runoff election, an ECO called Citizens for Change was behind mailers blasting Bob Buckhorn. Pedicini was working for Buckhorn’s opponent, Rose Ferlita.
Ferlita said recently she regrets using Pedicini and refused to return phone calls from Toledo seeking her endorsement after learning that she was using Pedicini for her campaign.
Republican strategist April Schiff said she has no doubt that Pedicini is behind Moving Tampa Forward.
“It’s a pattern – he’s done it in other campaigns,” Schiff said. “I think he loves the publicity he gets out of it, and that’s how he operates.”
Using the cover of a PAC brings several advantages for candidates, Schiff said. The PAC can send out attack advertisements while the candidates send out positive mailers about their platforms. Also, while contributions to individual candidates are limited to $1,000, PACS can receive unlimited contributions, allowing companies or political groups to flex their financial muscles to influence a race.
Victor DiMaio, a consultant who is supporting Maniscalco, said he may file at least one complaint about Moving Tampa Forward with the Florida Elections Commission. The commission can issue fines up to $1,000 per violation but has no authority to remove candidates from office.
But proving actual coordination between a candidate and a political committee is never easy, said Tim Peckinpaugh, an attorney partner with K&L Gates who practices federal election law. He stressed that state laws may be different.
In February, Tyler E. Harber, a Virginia political consultant, was prosecuted by the federal government for illegally coordinating campaign contributions between political committees while working on the 2010 and 2012 campaigns of U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine.
A U.S. Department of Justice statement said Harber’s prosecution was the first of its kind in the nation.
“Unless the coordination is pretty obvious, you’ll have a hard time getting a prosecution,” Peckinpaugh said. “The rules are very blurry as to what is coordination.”
The District 6 runoff election is on March 24. Early voting starts Monday.
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