Elections Complaint Threatened on STOP

Politics

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY MONDAY BUSINESS EDITION MONDAY APR 24, 2017

A Democratic party activist threatened to file a complaint with the Florida Elections Commission alleging the STOP Coalition was operating as an electioneering organization without properly filing paperwork with the state. Gabriel Hament prepared a complaint against the Coalition and against six steering committee members, including Sarasota City Commission candidate Jennifer Ahearn-Koch, alleging the group sent out a mass communication and published several social media posts aimed at advancing Ahern-Koch’s candidacy. Kate Lowman, one of the steering committee members targeted in the complaint, called the action “specious” and a distraction.

Hament says his aim is to make sure all campaigns and political organizations adhere to the same requirements for transparency. “Everybody needs to play by the same rules,” he says. Hament says STOP needs to file as an electioneering communications organization. After preparing his complaints, he sent the materials out by email to political leaders and media.

His concern largely centers around a mass email publicizing answers candidates for Sarasota City Commission gave at a STOP forum earlier this year. To the question “Are you in favor of a city-wide traffic study that monitors and measures accurate and timely year-round traffic volumes?”, the email notes, Ahearn-Koch answered yes while the other candidates for office, Hagen Brody and Martin Hyde, answered no. Hament says that clearly falls under electioneering communications, which under Florida law include paid communication that “refers to or depicts a clearly identified candidate for office without expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate but that is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.”

The three candidates are running for two at-large commission seats. The election is slated for May 9.

Lowman says STOP filed proper paperwork as a 501(c)4 nonprofit but does not need to file as an electioneering group partly because it has not raised more than $5,000. “STOP! has not seen $5,000, much less spent it—on political messages or anything else,” she wrote in an email response to Hament. Besides that, statutes governing electioneering communications apply to mailers sent out in the mail but not for email communications, Lowman told SRQ. “We haven’t put out anything in the category covered by the law,” she says. Lowman acknowledges a similar message to the STOP email would qualify as an electioneering communication if had been done by mass mail, a much more expensive process. But as is, there’s hardly any financial support the organization would need to report, says Lowman, who estimates STOP has spent about $100 on its digital platform including a Wordpress website and mass email service. “It’s a baseless accusation,” she says. “We know we are operating well within the law.” In her response to Hament, she went so far as to note a person who knowingly files a false complaint with the state would commit a misdemeanor.

While Ahearn-Koch remains a member of STOP, she has not been involved in anything related to the election, she says. She considered the complaint from Hament an intentional distraction. “It’s creating negativity and trying to be destructive without informing people what the real issues are,” she says. 

Hament, who supports Brody in the election but is not working with any campaign, says mass emails fall under the same guidelines as physical mail, and that the real issue and reason the group should file as an electioneering committee is so that they report where their financial support comes from. And he says there’s no way to check how much STOP has raised or spent because 501(c)4 nonprofits aren’t governed by the same transparency laws as electioneering groups. “The question is, who is financing this activity, and why was the decision made to create an opaque structure that might not be in compliance with the law,” he says.

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