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Judge Revives Lawsuit Over Senate Race Ads

Jeffrey R. Davis

By Jason Garcia and Annie Martin Orlando Sentinel

A Democratic lawmaker will get a second chance to force a secretive political group to reveal the donors who helped fund advertisements in a key Central Florida Senate race last year after the Orlando Sentinel identified the possible leader of the group.

A judge in Miami-Dade County on Wednesday gave an extra 60 days for state Sen. Annette Taddeo to serve a lawsuit she filed against “Floridians for Equality and Justice,” which sent mailers last year attacking Democrat Patricia Sigman during last year’s Senate District 9 election without ever disclosing its contributors.

Sigman ultimately lost the high-stakes race to Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur of Sanford.

Taddeo, a Democrat from Miami whose name and picture were used in some of Floridians for Equality and Justice’s advertisements, filed a civil lawsuit last summer against the group, which listed its address as a box in a UPS Store in Miami and its chairperson as Stephen Jones, a person who election records showed had never led a state-level political committee before.

Taddeo and her attorneys were unable to find Jones and serve him with the suit, as UPS Store employees told process servers they had no box-holder agreement with Stephen Jones or Floridians for Equality and Justice.

As a result, the court was preparing to dismiss the lawsuit.

But the Sentinel reported last month there is a 24-year-old Stephen Stafford Jones in Gainesville whose signature on a traffic court document matched the Stephen Jones signatures on Floridians for Equality and Justice’s election filings, according to an expert forensic document examiner.

That Stephen Jones is the son of William Stafford Jones, a prominent political consultant in Gainesville who has done work with Data Targeting Inc. — the Gainesville-based firm that worked on Brodeur’s Senate campaign last year, as well as the campaigns of other GOP Senate candidates around the state.

The Sentinel report prompted Taddeo’s attorneys to ask for additional time to serve the suit. In a court filing, they argued Jones “took steps to secret his true address in forming the political committee for the purpose of potentially avoiding responsibility for illegal acts.”

They say they ultimately want to depose Stephen Jones and obtain bank records from Floridians for Equality and Justice, which claimed in its campaign finance reports that it began with a roughly $250,000 “starting balance” rather than disclosing its individual contributors.

Reached by cellphone, Stephen Jones declined to comment.

“Sorry, I’m not available to talk right now,” he said.

Taddeo said it is “obvious” that the people behind Floridians for Equality and Justice
were trying to hide their identities from voters.

“This is completely unacceptable that they went through such lengths to hide where all of this communication with voters was coming from,” Taddeo said. “People should care because the reason why we have so many voters that do not trust government is
because of things like this.”

Floridians for Equality and Justice’s secret donors were one of several controversies that marred the District 9 race, in which Brodeur ultimately defeated Sigman by about 7,600 votes out of about 281,000 cast, helping Republicans retain control of the 40-member Florida Senate.

During the general election campaign, Jestine Iannotti, a former substitute teacher who had already applied for permanent residency in Sweden, appeared on the ballot as an independent candidate. Iannotti had never run for public office before but she knew a prominent Seminole County Republican who works for Brodeur and had help qualifying from a controversial local political consultant who is also a Brodeur supporter.

Though Iannotti did no campaigning herself, another political committee working with Tallahassee Republicans spent $180,000 promoting her in ads that appeared designed to appeal to Democrat-leaning voters. The ads were financed by a darkmoney nonprofit that records and interviews show has connections to a political consulting firm whose clients included sugar grower Florida Crystals and a business that matches the description of the parent company of electric utility Florida Power & Light.

The chairman, treasurer and registered agent of that political committee — called “The Truth” — was a young woman from Pinellas County who told investigators probing another independent candidate in a Miami-area Senate race that she was paid $4,000 by a Tallahassee consultant to use her name on The Truth’s election filings.

The Truth did not disclose any payments to her in its campaign finance report and the woman also told investigators her signature was forged on some documents.

In addition, one of the only donors reported by Iannotti’s campaign — Todd Karvoski of Orlando, who gave $100, according to campaign finance reports — told an Orlando Sentinel reporter who visited his MetroWest apartment that he’d never heard of Iannotti and didn’t give any money to her campaign.

After the Sentinel published a story with Karvoski’s comments, someone claiming to be Karvoski emailed the newspaper to say he had made a mistake and had, in fact, contributed $100 to Iannotti’s campaign. But Karvoski never responded to a followup phone call to confirm he sent the email, and, when the reporter visited his apartment again, a woman said he was not home.

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said last month the agency opened a “preliminary investigation” into “allegations” in the Senate District 9 election. The agency would not identify the specific allegations it is probing.


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