Late last week, Lombardo reported receiving a $51,000 loan from his wife’s assisted living facility, The Lombardo Home. Business contributions to a candidate are limited to $500 under state law, even if a candidate owns the company.
“I apologize for the error, it has been corrected,” the Lombardo press release says. “In loaning money to the campaign, the Lombardo family drew a check from their joint business and when they learned of this error, they took steps to correct the issue that will show on the next campaign finance report.”
The press release offers no further detail. Lombardo did not return phone calls for comment, nor did his campaign treasurer.
An election law expert and a longtime political science professor say clearing up a campaign fundraising violation is not always as easy as paying the money back.
As a pre-emptive measure, candidates often give back illegal donations, but that does not stop the Florida Elections Commission or law enforcement from investigating, said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee-based attorney who is an expert on elections law.
A candidate in the Escambia County sheriff’s race recently refunded cash donations he had received that exceeded the state limit. But the candidate, John Powell, was still indicted Monday by a grand jury on a misdemeanor campaign fundraising violation charge, the Pensacola News Journal reported.
On the other hand, even a criminal charge against one of the candidates does not bring election season to a standstill.
Powell told the newspaper he will plead not guilty on Friday as he presses on with his campaign to be sheriff.
And the race goes on
Lombardo and his opponent, Ed Brodsky, are competing in the Aug. 14 Republican primary election, which will be settled long before any alleged violations could be adjudicated.
Brodsky, a former coworker of Lombardo’s who has the endorsements of all three sheriffs in the 12th Judicial Circuit, said on Wednesday that he is pressing on.
“Whether or not there is some irregularity within the campaign account, that isn’t going to be resolved prior to Aug. 14,” he said. “My concentration will remain on the campaign.”
Neither the elections commission nor the FDLE would say whether it is investigating.
If they are deemed serious enough, campaign violations can be treated as either misdemeanors or felonies.
Civil fines can range from a few thousand dollars to up to three times the amount of an illegal donation.
Herron says candidates make mistakes on their financial paperwork all the time, and punishments vary widely.
Some are addressed with a simple note from the Department of State.
The state tends to penalize lawyers more harshly, however, because they are expected to know the rules, Herron said.
As to how the apparent violation in Lombardo’s campaign will affect the primary election, Herron said: “If it ever matured into a criminal action, then there would be issues. But there’s nothing automatically disqualifying if the guy who broke the law won. It would just depend on how these things play out. Sometimes election law things are turned over to prosecutors or special prosecutors and they don’t go anywhere because they conclude that it wasn’t willful.”
T. Wayne Bailey, a political science professor at Stetson University who has reviewed Lombardo’s campaign paperwork, said Wednesday that he did not expect any fundraising violations to be easily explained away.
“Based on the circumstances in this case, it would seem to be a very difficult matter to straighten out,” Bailey said.
Lombardo’s camp disagrees. In an emailed response to questions, Lombardo’s campaign manager, Anthony Pedicini, wrote: “This is a harmless mistake that once corrected doesn’t hurt a fly. . . . Loans come from the candidate. This is Peter’s first time doing this. He’s a real guy trying to run a law practice and a campaign at the same time.”
Pedicini and Lombardo’s press release also point to three correction notes that Brodsky has received: “Lombardo’s opponent, Ed Brodsky, has had three letters sent to him for missing entries on his reports or contributions over the limit.”
One of the letters concerned a refund of a $36 campaign contribution because the donor had already given the legal limit; another was for a $55 in-kind contribution that was not explained thoroughly; and another Brodsky report incorrectly coded a $5,000 loan from the candidate to his campaign.
All were fixed.
Lombardo has received one correction note because his campaign paperwork did not include the occupation of a donor who gave $500, and because a $200 contribution he made to his campaign was incorrectly coded.
The winner in the Republican primary will face Democrat John Torraco in the general election in November.