Dillaha's mailer violated election law, state attorney says

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  • | 11:00 a.m. June 29, 2011
Photo by: Isaac Babcock - Former Winter Park Commissioner Beth Dillaha speaks at the Winter Park Welcome Center on Aug. 19 during the city's CoffeeTalk series. The state attorney's office says she did not adhere to the law regarding a political expend...
Photo by: Isaac Babcock - Former Winter Park Commissioner Beth Dillaha speaks at the Winter Park Welcome Center on Aug. 19 during the city's CoffeeTalk series. The state attorney's office says she did not adhere to the law regarding a political expend...
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Then-outgoing Winter Park City Commissioner Beth Dillaha commissioned an anti-Sarah Sprinkel mailer that went out before the March 8 election, and it violated a state election law, according to the state attorney’s office.

Dillaha maintains that she adhered to the law, and she and community activist Will Graves are calling out the men behind the push for an investigation — resident Pete Weldon and Mayor Ken Bradley.

Mystery financier

The anti-Sprinkel mailer sent to 8,000 residents in March listed Graves as the financier. A week later, he said that he was not behind it, though he declined to reveal who was.

Weldon then filed a claim with the state attorney’s office to find out the identity of this mystery financier. During the investigation, Dillaha “verified her involvement in setting the stage for the piece to be produced and mailed …,” State Attorney Detective Supervisor Roger Floyd wrote to Winter Park Police Chief Brett Railey in a letter dated June 21.

Floyd also wrote that a state election law was violated because the mailer cost more than $500 to produce — about $5,000 — and Dillaha did not register a political action committee. Only the Florida Election Commission can make the official ruling on the matter.

City gets involved

The City Commission got into the controversy at Monday’s meeting, with Commissioner Steven Leary requesting to send a resolution to Florida Elections Commission Chairman Tim Holladay condemning the anti-Sprinkel mailer and those behind it.

Leary said the secrecy behind the mailer frustrated him, and he spoke out against anonymous political groups.

“Transparency and anonymity are contradictory,” Leary said, reading from the resolution he intended to send to the FEC. That letter would be placed in the same package that Weldon said he intended to send to the FEC, imploring that commission to investigate the matter.

Leary’s contention was that those responsible for the mailer were not entitled to secrecy, since it had cost more than $500 to produce. At that dollar level, he said, the group that paid for and sent out the mailer was required to form a political action committee, putting a name to those behind it.

Resolution tabled

It appeared as if Leary’s resolution denouncing the anonymous mailer was headed for a quick vote at Monday’s meeting, but the city held back from approving it, tabling that motion until its next meeting after Commissioner Carolyn Cooper said the Commission had no time to read the resolution before voting to send it.

“What you’re asking them to do is a very serious thing,” Cooper said, addressing Bradley, who appeared in favor of sending the resolution immediately. “I might be 100 percent behind you, but I just don’t think it’s an appropriate decision to come up here and force the Commission to move on it.”

Leary agreed, voting along with Cooper and Commissioner Tom McMacken to table the resolution until the next meeting.

Reputations at stake

Weldon wrote in an email to the City Commission that he will pursue his own claim with the FEC to find out who was behind the mailer.

“It is a great disappointment to me, and I trust to all Winter Park citizens, to discover that a Winter Park city commissioner, and one who has consistently browbeaten others for their perceived ethical lapses, is at the very least the coordinator of malicious, anonymous election mailers,” Weldon wrote.

But Dillaha said that Weldon and Bradley are pushing a political agenda that discredits the reputation of anyone who stands in their way. Graves said Weldon is looking for a “lawsuit he can call his own.”

“The mayor, Pete Weldon and his proponents have a political agenda,” Dillaha said. “If you do not subscribe to their agenda, your name gets discredited, your reputation gets discredited. I find their point of view to be very hypocritical.”

Attorney weighs in

In Tallahassee, the state attorney’s office said the Florida Elections Commission may find merit in Weldon’s claim.

Floyd wrote that Florida election law says that contributions and expenditures of more than $500 cannot be made by individuals, only by political action committees. The mailer, Floyd said, cost about $5,000.

Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles told Floyd that the group should have registered as a PAC and filed reports with the Winter Park city clerk.

Dillaha told Floyd during the investigation that she thought that anything less than $5,000 would not have to be reported. She also said that “it was her desire for the people that paid for the mailer to remain anonymous.”

Defamation claim

The mailer initially was called into question by developer and former Winter Park City Commission candidate David Lamm after he said it damaged his reputation because it incorrectly identified Lamm as a “Carlisle developer.”

Graves, who is listed as the financier of the mailer, admits the Carlisle label was in error, but said he was not behind the mailer. He said that someone he explicitly trusted assembled the mailer and he “quickly scanned it” before it went out under his name to 8,000 residents.

Read Weldon’s complaint here.