An advertisement against a candidate for Hillsborough County judge is under scrutiny because it is linked to an opponent and did not contain a disclaimer, which is required by law.
Local attorney Nancy Jacobs is challenging incumbent Jared Smith for Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge, Group 37. An ad, which was uploaded to social media in late July and has since been removed, claims she has sided with “woke” and far left groups and would have an “activist agenda” as judge.
Under Florida Election Law, a disclaimer is required when a candidate or any entity linked to the candidate takes out an ad against an opponent.
However, no disclaimer was attached to the attack ad.
What’s more is that judges are not supposed to say disparaging, non-objective claims about each other or other candidates, especially during political races, under Canon 7 of the Canons of Judicial Ethics.
Campaign finance records show that Smith—who was endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times despite a troubling history—paid a total of $1,000 on July 17 to Social Media Ad Group (SMAG) located at 3310 W Cypress St. Suite 206 in Tampa.
Under the "purpose" section of Smith's $1,000 contribution to SMAG, it says: advertisement.
The very next week, the ad against Jacobs appeared on social media.
On a phone call, Jamie Arellano, a representative from SMAG, confirmed to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that Smith is their client and that the company released the ad.
"He's a regular client of ours, we handle his social media distribution," Arellano said, adding that Smith has “been our client for months.”
Upon further questioning about the ad, Arellano handed the phone to Matt Wolf of the Ivanov and Wolf Law Firm who said, “We don’t comment on any of our clients.”
Ivanov and Wolf was caught up in a foreclosure scandal in 2017 with Michael Chancey, whose name is listed as the registered agent, or owner, of SMAG.
Arellano later sent an official statement claiming that SMAG put out the ad against Jacobs without his input, despite Smith being their client and paying them the money the week before.
“Neither Judge Jared Smith nor his campaign authorized the creation of or distribution of the video we had posted about Nancy Jacobs that was previously accessible through the following link,” wrote Arellano. “We are being paid by Judge Smith’s Campaign to increase the reach of the social media posts that Judge Smith’s campaign posts on their campaign Facebook page only. Neither Judge Smith nor the campaign have ever authorized any negative advertisements related to Nancy Jacobs. Judge Smith did not see the video prior to us posting it and knew nothing about the video whatsoever. We took the video down immediately when asked to do so.”
When asked who requested the ad to be removed, SMAG did not respond.
Though SMAG claims the company acted independently of Smith, Miami-Dade-based election lawyer Juan-Carlos Planas told CL that a disclaimer about who published the ad still should’ve been attached to it, under Florida law.
Planas also said it’s highly unusual for a PR company to run an attack ad on their own, while also retaining Smith as a client.
“It seems very weird that a PR company would just go ahead and do something on their own without coordinating with the judicial candidate,” he said.
Planas said he thinks that the potential issues with the disclaimers are “bad” but added that he thinks it “pales in comparison” to the judicial ethical implications that Smith could face if he was in any way involved in the ad.
“If the judge had any part whatsoever in this ad, it would be disqualifying from office,” Planas said. “If a sitting judge were to make these comments about a challenger, the act in and of itself would be unbecoming of a judge.”
In other ads promoting himself, including on his website and on his campaign signs, Smith includes a disclaimer that the ads were paid for by his campaign.
Susan MacManus, USF’s Distinguished University Professor Emerita in Political Science, told CL that this type of advertising in judicial races makes it harder for voters to make the right choice.
“What makes this kind of misinformation or disinformation so sad is that people are already struggling to get good information about judicial candidates,” MacManus said.
MacManus said she agreed with Planas' legal assessment of the ad, and added that because judge candidates are restricted in what they can say, they sometimes turn to third party groups.
A negative mailer ad about Smith is also circulating, which calls him out on abusing his judicial discretion in trying to prevent a 17-year-old from getting an abortion. This ad, unlike SMAG’s, has a disclaimer showing that it was paid for by “Progressive Youth PC” political action committee.
Jacobs told CL that she had nothing to do with that ad and declined to comment on the content of SMAG’s ad.
On July 22, the Tampa Bay Times editorial board endorsed Smith despite his troubling abortion decision. CL responded by highlighting the problems with the Times’ candidate, and first reported that Smith’s wife told a Christian church that Jacobs “needs Jesus” despite her practicing Judaism. Smith sits on the board of the Idlewild Foundation, a religious non-profit aligned with the Idlewild Baptist Church.
The Times told CL that the endorsement “speaks for itself” even though the paper did not actually explain why the editorial board chose Smith over Jacobs.
A few days later, the Times published a story framing the situation as two candidates attacking each other. The paper noted that Jacobs filed a complaint against Smith with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, accusing Smith of “disparaging the faith of an opposing candidate.”
Nowhere in the article did it mention that the Times editorial board endorsed Smith.
The alarm was first raised to CL about Smith’s ad by John T. Fox, a local political consultant, and by Samuel Ronen, a Jewish activist from the group Florida For Change.
“You would think that judge Smith and his wife spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric would be the lowest he could go as a judicial candidate, but here we are,” Ronen told CL. “I can't tell if it's more disappointing that Smith thinks so little of us that he didn't cover his tracks better, or the fact that Tampa Bay Times still won't yank their endorsement of this man. If these are the things we can find with a few minutes of googling, what else is he up to?”
Judge Smith has not responded to multiple requests for comment.Florida's 2022 primary election is already underway and runs through Aug. 23.
UPDATE: Updated on 08/03/2022 at 1:21 p.m. to show that Smith's payment to SMAG was classified as "advertisement."