Complaints fly in Manatee County over sales tax hike politicking

skennedy@bradenton.comJune 5, 2013 

MANATEE -- An affiliate of the pro-sales tax increase political committee called Healthy Manatee has filed complaints with the Florida Elections Commission alleging campaign finance violations by two opposing groups.

In a filing Tuesday, the complainant, whose named was blanked out on the confidential complaint form, alleged Manatee for Common Cents political committee sent mail and made robocalls despite filing a waiver claiming no financial activity for the period ending May 24.

"This cannot possibly be true," the complaint contends.

Eric Robinson, a Venice CPA who is chairperson, treasurer and registered agent for Manatee for Common Cents, responded: "They don't understand the campaign finance laws.

"This is a special election," Robinson added, noting the timing of reporting periods are different under such circumstances.

As an "electioneering communications organization" registered with the state, Common Cents is not required to file a campaign finance report until July 10, according to the state Division of Elections website.

A second complaint was filed against The Tea Party of Manatee, claiming it "is expressly advocating a position in the June 18 special referendum in Manatee County," but was not registered as a political entity and did not place disclaimers on material it distributed.

"They have blatantly disregarded calls for them to file as a committee and follow the election law," the complaint said.

Tea Party President Steve Vernon said: "We have not received any notice of any complaint, so I have no comment."

Yet another complaint, this one alleging unethical behavior, was filed last month by former Manatee County Commission candidate Corie Holmes alleging Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore had "voting conflicts" because her husband, Dr. Andre Renard, could benefit if the half-cent sales surtax is passed.

Whitmore declined comment on the Florida Commission on Ethics complaint, but County Attorney Mitchell "Mickey" Palmer said: "We remain confident there is no voting conflict, and it should be either completely dismissed outright or she will be exonerated."

Andrea Torkelson, who is aiding Healthy Manatee through The Nolan Group, a Bradenton-based political consulting firm, confirmed the campaign finance complaints stem from the political committee she is helping.

Healthy Manatee, which is campaigning for the proposed increase in Manatee County's sales tax rate to pay for health care for the poor, has spent almost $106,000 on its campaign, according to a finance report filed this week with the county elections office.

Most of the $169,550 the group had raised as of May 24 was collected in the form of contributions from local hospitals, physicians and others in the health care industry.

Of the money spent, about $100,000 has been paid to The Nolan Group, including $12,000 for consulting fees, and the rest for advertising materials, Torkelson said.

Healthy Manatee's biggest donors were USH of Delaware, the Pennsylvania-based parent company of Manatee Memorial Hospital and Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, and a political committee affiliated with HCA, parent company of Blake Medical Center. Each donated $75,000, according to the filing.

Additionally, the "medical staff" at Manatee Memorial donated $10,000, and the "medical staff" at Blake Medical donated $5,000.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745 7031. Follow her on Twitter@sarawrites.

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