State Attorney’s Office review underway of Sheriff’s Office recommendation for charges against Democratic County Commission candidates who exceeded County Charter contribution limit

Candidates refunded money after learning that County Charter supersedes state law regarding party contributions

Image from the website of the State Attorney’s Office for the 12th Judicial Circuit

Following an investigation initiated by the Office of the Sarasota County Attorney, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has determined that three Democratic candidates for County Commission committed multiple violations of a County Charter provision limiting campaign contributions to $200 from a person or entity.

Kaitlyn R. Perez, the community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, told The Sarasota News Leader that the department turned over the results of its investigation to the State Attorney’s Office for the 12th Judicial District, instead of filing formal charges. It will be up to State Attorney Ed Brodsky to determine how to proceed, Perez indicated.

During a Nov. 5 telephone interview, Brian Chambers, the county court chief for Sarasota County in the State Attorney’s Office, told the News Leader that the cases have been assigned to an attorney who has begun “looking into the charges.” That attorney will be responsible for researching the applicable law, Chambers added, “and determining what can and can’t be done.”

Chambers said he could not predict when a final decision would be made.

All the Sheriff’s Office reports were dated Oct. 21, the News Leader found.

The candidates — Mark Pienkos of Sarasota, Alice White of Englewood and Cory Hutchinson of North Port — told the News Leader that as soon as they learned that Democratic Party checks to them above $200 contravened the County Charter language, they returned the funds.

All three pointed to advice they had received from party officials that cited a section of the Florida Statutes regarding the maximum amount of contributions from a county executive committee of a political party or from the national or state executive committees of a political party. They were told, the candidates said, that that portion of state law superseded the Charter stipulation.

However, Jack Brill, acting chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, alleged in a Sept. 29 letter to County Attorney Frederick P. Elbrecht and commission Chair Michael Moran that Section 6.5A of the County Charter makes it clear that no candidate for county office can accept “an amount in excess of $200.00.”

This is Section 6.5 of the Sarasota County Charter. Image courtesy Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller

Brill also pointed out that Chapter 46 of the county Code of Ordinances calls for each violation of the campaign spending limit to be treated as a misdemeanor. A person convicted of such a violation could be punished by a fine up to $500, a jail term up to 60 days, or both.

Details of the reports

Mark Pienkos. Image from his campaign website

Pienkos was the focus of the majority of the cases, as evidenced by the documents Perez of the Sheriff’s Office provided the News Leader. Detectives noted the following in the six reports involving Pienkos, who ran for the District 1 County Commission seat, facing Moran, who was elected in November 2016 and re-elected this week.

The reports also point out that Pienkos declined to talk with the Sheriff’s Office investigators. Instead, attorney Derek Byrd, “who advised he would be representing Mr. Pienkos,” told the Sheriff’s Office that “Pienkos did not wish to discuss this matter with investigators,” as the reports put it.

The following are the contributions above the $200 threshold that Pienkos accepted, according to the reports:

  • July 7: $500 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.
  • Aug. 7: $500 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.
  • Sept. 4: $500 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.
  • Sept. 8: $2,500 from the Florida Democratic Party.
  • Sept. 16: $3,500 from the Florida Democratic Party.
  • Sept. 28: $1,000 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.

Each of the reports says, “Through documents provided by the supervisor of elections, investigators were able to verify the contributions to Mr. Pienkos’ campaign that were in violation of the charter provision. The records show on 10/2/20, presumably after finding out he was in violation of the provision, Mr. Pienkos returned $8100 of the total $8500 to each respective contributor.”

The reports add, “Based on this investigation, probable cause was developed to show Mark Pienkos violated Sec. 6.5A of the Sarasota County Charter punishable under Sarasota County Ordinance Sec. 46-33, which states, “A violation of article VI of the Charter shall be treated as a misdemeanor.”

Cory Hutchinson. Image from his campaign website

In Hutchinson’s case, Sheriff’s Office investigators found probable cause to charge him with four violations. He was the District 3 candidate facing incumbent Commissioner Nancy Detert.

The Sheriff’s Office reported the following contributions above the Charter limit for Hutchinson:

  • June 6: $500 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.
  • July 8: $500 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.
  • Aug. 10: $500 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.
  • Sept. 8: $500 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.

Investigators did conduct a recorded interview with Hutchinson, the reports say, during which “he admitted to receiving the donations.” He also told the detectives that Sarasota County Democratic Party Chair JoAnne DeVries “advised him the contribution limits outlined in the [Charter] provision do not apply to the candidate’s respective party.”
After learning of the violations, Hutchinson returned $1,600 of the total $2,000, the reports said.

Reports regarding contributions to White — the Democratic candidate for the District 5 seat being vacated by Commissioner Charles Hines — pointed out that White also agreed to an interview with Sheriff’s Office investigators. She, too, told them that DeVries had advised her that the Charter provision did not apply to a candidate’s party.

Investigators documented three violations involving White:

  • May 25: $500 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.
  • Sept. 4: $500 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.
  • Sept. 29: $1,000 from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee.

The reports add that White returned $1,800 of the $2,000.

Response from the county Democratic Party

This is Florida Statute 106.08, which regulates campaign contributions. Image courtesy State of Florida

DeVries, chair of the Sarasota County Democratic Party, issued a statement to the News Leader on Oct. 29 in response to the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation.

“The impartiality of our justice system represents the foundation of our civil society in America,” DeVries began. “When the justice system is used as a political tool it undermines everyone’s faith in the justice system.

“It is undeniable that these local candidates did not violate any Florida State laws and that political parties are allowed to donate to candidates. Whether this local ordinance applies to political parties is a legal issue that has never been decided in our local courts. Instead, the history in Sarasota County shows that political committees, like the ones used by Republican candidates, not political parties, were added to the text of the [county] ordinance when it was rewritten over a decade ago.

“It is also undeniable that the donations in this instance were refunded,” DeVries continued. “Refunds for donations over the ordinance limit of $200 occur in many county races including the most recent race for Sarasota Sheriff. Usually, once the error has been discovered, the campaign issues a refund. What is unusual in this instance is that one political opponent requested a political prosecution. All Sarasota residents should condemn such political prosecutions.”