Campaign Cleaners

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The committee's ruling proved more outrageous, however, opening the panel to charges that its own members weren't clean.

Shortly before the September 1994 primary, Latvala told the committee that one of his GOP senatorial opponents, Jamie Wilson, had run a TV commercial falsely accusing him of favoring higher sales taxes and elimination of the homestead exemption on real estate taxes.

"Only eight days remain until the primary," Latvala frantically noted in a letter to the committee, "so time is of the essence!"

Times Associate Editor Martin Dyckman noted wryly in a column that, four years earlier, it was Latvala who pulled a similar stunt in order to help a client unseat an incumbent state senator. "Of course, it is the repentant sinners who sing the loudest in church," wrote Dyckman, whose columns on campaign ethics inspired creation of the committee.

The committee found in favor of Latvala and against Wilson. Both men had signed the fair-campaigning pledge.

But the committee's moral authority was immediately questioned by Wilson, who pointed out that two of the members voting against him had donated to Latvala's election bid.

"Of course, the Wilson campaign was livid," said Paulson. "As they should have been."

The incident led to the committee's first self-reform. All members sitting in judgment of a complaint have since been required to sign an oath stating they have assisted none of the candidates before them.

"It was a major embarrassment for a startup organization," said Paulson. The poor vetting for the Latvala-Wilson hearing has haunted the committee to this day.

Some Republicans still cite the Latvala verdict as a reason for their skeptical view of the committee.

Chief among them is Wilson, who went on to be executive director of the state Republican party before joining the ranks of Tallahassee lobbyists. "I don't spend much time thinking about small, non-meaningful groups," Wilson recently told the Planet.

Farkas vs. Fischer (1996, 2000):
Mud, Mud Everywhere

If ever there was a Pinellas ballot contest screaming for ethical mediation, it was the best-two-of-out-of-three mud-wrestling match between state Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, and Margo Fischer, a St. Petersburg Democrat.

"I know them both very well and they were my friends until they see this probably," said Paulson. But he added: "If they had to go back and look at some of the things they said and some of the things that were in their campaign literature ... they might be a little embarrassed."

Fischer won the first round in 1996, only to lose her House seat to Farkas in 1998 and fail to regain it in 2000. Asked which of the three elections was the dirty one, Paulson replied: "Take your pick."

Yet, for all the bleating and bluffing from both camps, neither Farkas nor Fischer filed a formal complaint that was aired at a public hearing of the panel.

In 1996, Farkas wrote the committee after the Florida Democratic Party mailed fliers on the Friday before the Tuesday election warning: "The St. Petersburg Times says ... voters should beware!" An unfavorable Times editorial on Farkas was enlarged on the flier.

Times honchos were as bent out of shape as Farkas, and published a news report in which the newspaper's editor and lawyer suggested Fischer and the Democrats had deceptively misused the paper's trademark.

The timing of the Democratic attack left Farkas with little recourse. Farkas didn't get around to writing the committee until Election Day, when he lost.

Since then, Farkas said he has declined to sign the committee's fair-campaigning pledge. "I think it's a noble thought," he said. "I'm just not sure they have the teeth."

Farkas prefers to take his beefs to state government authorities, which he has done. Two years ago, the state elections commission fined Fischer $300 for sending out campaign event invitations that suggested she was the incumbent. Farkas had unseated her in 1998.

Also in 2000, Farkas was on the receiving end of a post-election complaint to the Pinellas committee from Fischer. In it, the by then two-time loser claimed distortions in 11th-hour Farkas mailings.

One Farkas piece informed voters that Fischer would do "whatever it takes" to gain their support, "even if it means playing tricks to scare you or mislead you or even lie to you."

Farkas filed his own complaint against Fischer. The committee persuaded the 2000 victor and the vanquished to withdraw their grievances.

Perennial last-minute attacks in legislative races convinced the committee to create what Paulson called "rapid response teams," which can meet on short notice to help restore a victim's reputation before the polls open. The committee also added a clause to its clean-election pledge: Candidates promise to pre-approve all material distributed by their party on their behalf because they will be held personally responsible for any misstatements.

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