3 county commissioner candidates could potentially face criminal charges

The three are accused of accepting more donations than legally allowed

3 county commissioner candidates could potentially face criminal charges
File photo (Source: Hawaii News Now/file)

SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office is recommending criminal charges for three candidates running for county commissioner.

Cory Hutchinson, Alice White and Mark Pienkos are accused of receiving of multiple $500 contributions from the Sarasota County Democratic Committee. Pienkos received $6000 total contributions from the Florida Democratic Party. Deputies say they received a memo notifying them of the donations.

The Democratic Party, The Republican Party, and Mark Pienkos' campaign team responded to ABC7 with statements.

On October 2, 2020, Mark Pienkos Campaign released a statement that reads:

Florida State law allows political parties to donate to candidates in excess of limits set to individuals.

Any contributions made over the local Sarasota County ordinance limit was done without intent and will be refunded today to the Sarasota County Democratic Party and the Florida Democratic Party. Our campaign is responding in the spirit of transparency.

During the next 33 days, our campaign is focused on local issues critical to our community. Our campaign is hearing loud and clear voters' concerns regarding the following issues: Protecting our environment; Making sure overbuilding does not ruin our beautiful open spaces; Being a watchdog on their precious tax dollars: Calling out gerrymandering; and Listening to all of the people in District 1, not just special interests.

Our campaign urges an overall review of where all campaign contributions come from. For example, my opponent’s campaign has sent out three mailers paid for and from PACs - not by my opponent’s campaign. Specifically the Tallahassee PACs sending mail attacking local Democratic candidates, including our campaign.

The Chairman of the Democratic Party of Sarasota, JoAnna Devries, responded to ABC7 with the following statement:

The impartiality of our justice system represents the foundation of our civil society in America. When the justice system is used as a political tool it undermines everyone’s faith in the justice system.

It is undeniable that these local candidates did not violate any Florida State laws and that political parties are allowed to donate to candidates. Whether this local ordinance applies to political parties is a legal issue that has never been decided in our local courts. Instead, the history in Sarasota County shows that political committees, like the ones used by Republican candidates, not political parties, were added to the text of the ordinance when it was rewritten over a decade ago.

It is also undeniable that the donations in this instance were refunded. Refunds for donations over the ordinance limit of $200 occur in many county races including the most recent race for Sarasota Sheriff. Usually, once the error has been discovered, the campaign issues a refund. What is unusual in this instance is that one political opponent requested a political prosecution. All Sarasota residents should condemn such political prosecutions.

Luckily, the voters of Sarasota County are smart enough to see what is going on with this blatant political investigation and they will not be distracted and will instead in 5 days end the era of one party rule.

The Republican Party of Sarasota County said:

A private citizen filed a complaint regarding illegal campaign contributions with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, which is tasked with enforcing Sarasota County’s Charter that the contributions violated. The Sheriff’s Office conducted their investigation and found probable cause that the three Democrats had indeed committed campaign finance violations. Contrary to an absurd media question, the Republican Party of Sarasota County is not “pressing charges” or “recommending charges” against Democrats — that is the role of the Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office when a law has been broken. The Party is not involved in this process. This is strictly a law enforcement matter.

But we will note the media’s sudden interest in what a dangerous path this is for our politics when barely one month ago the same media were totally disinterested in such concerns when Republican School Board Member Eric Robinson was being investigated for campaign finance violations — after he lost re-election. In fact, Robinson has been a favorite target of Democrats and the media on numerous complaints and they were all reported simply as complaints then — never “why are Democrats pressing charges.” And every complaint has been dismissed against him.

Records show that all three candidates have returned the money. The State’s Attorney’s Office has received the case and will determine if charges will be filed.

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