State Attorney’s Office still investigating Democratic County Commission candidates’ acceptance of contributions exceeding $200 County Charter limit

No timeline available for decision on charges

Ed Brodsky is the state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit website

The State Attorney’s Office for the 12th Judicial District is still engaged in an investigation that began in October 2020 regarding allegations that three Democratic candidates for Sarasota County Commission knowingly committed multiple violations of a County Charter provision regarding campaign contributions, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

During a Jan. 26 telephone interview, Brian Chambers, the county court chief for Sarasota County in State Attorney Ed Brodsky’s Office, said he was not certain how much longer the investigation would take.

Last fall, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office provided the State Attorney’s Office the results of its investigation into the allegations. For each count, the applicable Sheriff’s Office report said that detectives reviewed “documents provided by the supervisor of elections … to verify the contributions … were in violation of the charter provision.”

At that time, Kaitlyn R. Perez, the department’s community affairs director, told the News Leader that it would be up to the State Attorney’s Office to decide how to proceed.

State Attorney Brodsky himself was a candidate in 2020, seeking re-election to the post he first won in 2012. On Nov. 3, 2020, he defeated Democratic candidate Betsy Young by garnering 57.11% of the 261,335 votes cast in the race.

On Sept. 29, 2020, Jack Brill, acting chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, sent a letter to Sarasota County Attorney Frederick P. “Rick” Elbrecht and then-County Commission Chair Michael Moran, contending that Mark Pienkos of Sarasota, Alice White of Englewood and Cory Hutchinson of North Port accepted donations in excess of $200, in violation of County Charter Section 6.5A. The money came from the Democratic Party, as shown in all three candidates’ campaign finance reports.

In his letter, Brill also cited Chapter 46 of the County Code of Ordinances, which calls for each violation of the Charter provision 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.

This is Section 6.5A of the Sarasota County Charter. Image courtesy Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller

Pienkos, who unsuccessfully challenged Republican 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. The county Democratic Committee gave him a total of $1,500, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office found in its investigation, which County Attorney Elbrecht requested.

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

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.

All three of the Democratic candidates told the News Leader that they acted upon the advice of county Democratic Party leaders that the contributions were legal, based on Florida Statute 106.08. Nonetheless, after Brill raised the Charter issue, all three refunded the money.

Details in the campaign finance documents

In his final finance report for his 2020 campaign, filed on Jan. 3, Pienkos noted that he raised $35,746.05. However, he had ended up loaning $21,500 to the campaign, with the last of those funds reported in his Oct. 30, 2020 filing.

The General Election was conducted on Nov. 3, 2020.

Pienkos’ final filing with the Supervisor of Elections Office showed that he reimbursed $5,936.96 to himself.

Mark Pienkos. Image from his campaign website

In his report covering the period of Oct. 17 to Oct. 29, 2020, Pienkos noted that he had received $1,250 from the Florida Democratic Party, all of which he returned. Earlier, as shown in a filing that covered the period of Sept. 19 through Oct. 2, 2020, Pienkos reported refunding $5,800 to the Florida Democratic Party and $2,300 to the Sarasota County Democratic Executive Committee.

The final finance report filed for Commissioner Moran’s 2020 campaign showed that he received a total of $70,094 in contributions.

In the District 3 County Commission race, Hutchinson ended up with $8,327 in contributions, while Commissioner Detert’s last report showed she raised $24,020.

Among her final expenditures, Detert contributed $500 to the Republican Party of Sarasota, according to the filing submitted on Nov. 16, 2020 to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office.

The Sheriff’s Office investigation into Hutchinson’s campaign contributions case found that he returned $1,600 of the $2,000 he had received in four installments from the Sarasota County Democratic Executive Committee.

In defeating White in the District 5 race, Ron Cutsinger of Englewood raised a total of $91,960.60, his last campaign finance report said. It was filed on Dec. 29, 2020, the Supervisor of Elections Office notes.

Alice White. Contributed image

The 2020 race was Cutsinger’s first for County Commission.

White’s final campaign finance document, submitted to the Supervisor of Elections Office on Dec. 31, 2020, put her fundraising total at $11,049.

Her Oct. 9, 2020 filing shows White’s return of a $1,000 contribution from the Sarasota County Democratic Executive Committee that she received on Sept. 29, 2020, plus another $800 in refunds to that committee. The Sheriff’s Office investigation into her receipt of the allegedly illegal contributions had noted that she returned a total of $1,800 out of the $2,000 the Executive Committee gave her.