Don't Criminalize the Political Process

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY OCT 24, 2020

America’s justice system shouldn’t be weaponized for the sake of politics. That hasn’t stopped either side from doing exactly that. While it’s easy to point to the national climate for the current morass, there’s plenty of examples at the local level of people asserting civil fines and political consequences aren’t enough. Increasingly, many want their opponents carted off in handcuffs. You can see it as campaign finance violations in Sarasota prompt calls of criminality.

First, let me say there’s reason election laws exist. I recognize as well as anyone campaign contribution databases at the state and federal level can be difficult to navigate even for seasoned experts. But the ability to trace donations and identify influence creates a safeguard on American democracy not present everywhere in the world. Considering the difficulty in passing any type of election and campaign reform, it’s a testament to our purest democratic ideals any level of transparency exists. Those who unethically work around or flat out violate ethics and elections statutes deserve fines and repercussions.

But let’s talk now about Eric Robinson. The outgoing School Board member holds a certain reputation in the political world. He’s been called “The Prince of Dark Money,” a title that irks him and generates morning calls any time the phrase gets published here. At any moment his name can be found on dozens of active political committees engaging in state politics. The Venice accountant notes you can trace all the money through records so the term “dark money” shouldn’t apply. But the waters remain murky if not truly opaque. It’s why complaints sometimes get filed with the state saying his treasury work runs afoul of the intention of transparency laws, though to Robinson’s credit he has successfully defended himself against those time and again.

But this year, someone went a step farther and accused Robinson of stepping out of the bounds of administrative hearings and into the realm of criminal law regarding financial reporting. The matter became public when State Attorney Ed Brodsky recused himself from an investigation because Robinson serves as his campaign treasurer; actually Robinson does the books for every nearby Republican state attorney, so the matter landed in the office of Democratic State Attorney Andrew Warren in Tampa. Brodsky, while not discussing details, hinted strongly the matter likely won’t result in any charges. But every day the investigation sits open, it allows attacks on Robinson and everyone connected to him.

Robinson is a Republican, but this isn’t a tactic used just by the left against the right. The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate three Democratic county commission candidates — Mark Pienkos, Cory Hutchinson and Alice White — for accepting donations in excess of local contribution limits. That’s accepting them, not writing the checks. Weeks after Republicans (rightfully) pointed out the donations ran afoul of county charter, the matter has yet to resolve. That’s despite the fact Pienkos, the only one of these candidates with much chance in November, immediately returned all the excessive money when the matter became public.

Robinson in August lost his seat on the School Board as opponents painted him as a tool of dirty politics. The county candidates may all go down in November if voters feel their ignorance of campaign contribution limits constitutes a disqualifying offense. Fine. Voters may reject candidates for any reason they choose.

But it’s wrong to turn the screws of law enforcement to exaggerate issues for merely the chance to dismiss opponents not merely as mischiefs but outlaws. We shouldn’t make candidates risk arrest if they dare venture into political activity. It undermines democracy and deters the very type of honorable service this well-regulated process intends to produce. And it’s why good candidates seem so hard to find.

Jacob Ogles is senior contributing editor for SRQ MEDIA.

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