Change in state campaign finance regulations renders moot future legal challenges like those that happened during 2020 Sarasota County Commission races

State and county executive committees of political parties allowed to exceed state restrictions on contributions

This is the cover of the Sarasota County Charter. Image courtesy Clerk of Court and County Comptroller Karen Rushing

A new state law pre-empting local government caps on campaign contributions also will make moot the type of offense three Democratic candidates for Sarasota County Commission faced last year.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Senate Bill 1890 — when amended Florida Statute 106.08 — that not only raised contributions in local races to $1,000, but it also cleared the way for state and county executive committees of political parties to exceed the caps.

That was a detail Sarasota County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht pointed out in a May 14 memo to the County Commission. (See the related article in this issue.)

During the 2020 elections, then-County Commission Chair Michael Moran, especially, decried the fact that the three Democratic candidates took contributions from the state Democratic Party and the Sarasota County Democratic Party that exceeded the Sarasota County Charter cap of $200, which was implemented in 1990. All three candidates ended up returning the excess funds, saying they had taken the money on the advice of leaders of the Sarasota County Democratic Party.

About a week before DeSantis signed the new law, the State Attorney’s Office for the 12th Judicial District closed cases it had opened on those alleged Sarasota County campaign finance violations. After conducting an investigation into the candidates’ actions — at Elbrecht’s request last year — the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office found probable cause that the contributions violated the county Charter limit.

The Sheriff’s Office turned over the results of its investigation to the State Attorney’s Office.

During a May 20 telephone interview, Brian Chambers, the county court chief for Sarasota County in State Attorney Ed Brodsky’s office, told The Sarasota News Leaderthat the office conducted what is termed a “pre-trial intervention” with Mark Pienkos of Sarasota, Alice White of North Port and Cory Hutchinson of North Port.

As a result, Chambers said, each of them “made a donation to a local charity and sent us proof of that.”

Additionally, Chambers noted, each of them affirmed an understanding of the county campaign finance rules in the Charter.

“Obviously, none of them had any criminal history,” Chambers pointed out. Therefore, Chambers said, “We declined to go forward with the cases at [that] time.”

After DeSantis signed the new law on May 7, Chambers added, his phone “blew up” with people calling him about those 2020 campaign contributions.

This is a portion of the amended Florida Statue Chapter 106.08, regarding campaign finances. Image from the State of Florida

On Sept. 29, 2020, Jack Brill, acting chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, sent a letter to Commissioner Moran and County Attorney Elbrecht after learning of the contributions that Pienkos, White and Hutchinson had accepted above the Charter limit. Brill referenced Section 6.5A of the county Charter and a related county ordinance, Chapter 46 of the County Code, in saying that each violation of the Charter contribution provisions “shall be treated as a misdemeanor and the violation shall, upon conviction, be punished by a fine not to exceed $500.00 or by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed 60 days or by both such fine and imprisonment. Each act constituting a violation shall be deemed a separate offense.”

Cory Hutchinson. Image from his campaign website

Pienkos, who unsuccessfully challenged Moran for the District 1 commission seat, was the beneficiary of the majority of the contributions above $200. Among those, he received $2,500 on Sept. 8, 2020 from the Florida Democratic Party; $3,500 on Sept. 16 from the state party; and $1,000 on Sept. 28, 2020 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee, his campaign records showed. The county Democratic Committee gave him a total of $1,500.

Hutchinson, who lost his bid to unseat incumbent Commissioner Nancy Detert in the District 3 race, accepted a total of $2,000, records said.

Alice White, who failed in her campaign for the District 5 seat, which Commissioner Charles Hines vacated because of term limits, received a total of $2,000 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections.

Elbrecht forwarded Brill’s letter to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office for an investigation.

The News Leader was unable to reach Pienkos or White prior to its deadline for this issue.

However, Hutchinson told the News Leader in an email, “I’m very happy to have everything resolved. I think it was clear that we had no intent to do anything wrong. I also think the new Senate Bill that just passed, which voids the County contribution limits, shows that there is a clear hierarchy in which state finance law should supersede local regulations.”

Morgan Bentley. Contributed photo

Finally, Senate Bill 1890 said the new campaign contribution limits would apply to each election, and primaries and general elections would be considered separate elections, so long as a candidate was not unopposed.

The question of whether County Commission candidates could accept more than $200 altogether in a campaign also arose in 2020. Morgan Bentley of Bentley Law in Sarasota, who has served as general counsel for the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office, told the News Leader that his reading of the Sarasota County Charter indicated that $200 was the maximum, period. Nonetheless, Bentley made it clear that he had not studied the issue thoroughly.

However, Robert Waechter, a former chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, maintained to the News Leader that the Charter cap applied in each election — the primary and the general election.