Manatee County Commissioner John Chappie certainly erred in awarding two political consultants $5,000 apiece in campaign funds as a "winner bonus." This, for his 2012 re-election campaign in which he ran unopposed. What campaign then?
The Florida Election Commission found probable cause to charge Chappie with four violations of state election law. The payouts violated state statutes that forbid candidates from paying consultant bonuses out of campaign funds.
Including the $5,000 payouts, Political Insights Inc. was paid $27,000 and Linda C. Cinque Inc. pocketed $20,648.24 for consultant work and other expenses on what amounted to a non-campaign in 2012.
Chappie's attorney, Bucky Mitchell, told the Herald that the election commission must prove his client "willfully violated (the law) and that he knew a winner bonus was illegal and did it anyway, and they aren't going to be able to prove that."
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Whether the commission can prove the violation was willful is a purely legal matter. The court of public opinion -- that is, voters -- will have the opportunity to decide that in the 2016 election. Chappie has already raised more than $35,500 for his third run at the commission, almost a year and a half away. By comparison, he raised $78,000 for his non-campaign in 2012.
But here's another thing: How could political consultants accept illegal bonuses? If they don't know all the state statutes governing campaigns and elections, then that should be fair warning to other candidates when looking for consultants. Chappie should have been warned away from these bonuses but wasn't.
Chappie has until mid-July to resolve the case by consent order or request a hearing, thus launching an expensive defense. We'll see how this plays out. Regardless, Chappie will carry the weight of this ethical mistake into his 2016 campaign.