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Ocoee commissioner announces mayoral bid in video that expert says may violate campaign finance law

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Norine Dworkin

Editor in Chief

Wednesday, January 4, 2023


Oliver told VoxPopuli he'd "already announced my plan to run for Mayor" before he sent a link to his video where he asked for campaign donations. Florida Statute prohibits soliciting campaign contributions from government buildings.

Story updated on Jan. 5. 

In a Dec. 26 YouTube video sent to friends and supporters, George Oliver III, Ocoee’s District 4 city commissioner, announced that he would challenge the city’s long-serving commissioner and two-term mayor, Rusty Johnson, in the March 14 municipal elections to become the city’s first Black mayor.

But his nearly nine-minute video, which was recorded in the commission chambers at Ocoee City Hall and included a request for campaign donations, may be a possible violation of state campaign finance law.

“I’m asking for not only your vote, but I need your financial support,” said Oliver in the video in which the city logo is visible above his head. “I need your financial support to come in and to run a good race, to leave it all out in the communities, and to let folks know what is my message and what is my vision for the city.”

That financial solicitation may be problematic to Oliver’s campaign, according to municipal law expert Clifford B. Shepard of Shepard, Smith, Kohlmyer and Hand. Shepard is the city attorney for Maitland, Eatonville and Ponce Inlet, and his firm represents a number of Florida municipalities, including Dunnellon, Mascotte, Edgewood, Flagler Beach.

Shepard pointed to Florida Statute 106.15, which prohibits soliciting campaign donations in government buildings, like city hall. The statute states: No person shall make and no person shall solicit or knowingly accept any political contribution in a building owned by a governmental entity. It’s a first-degree misdemeanor and punishable by up to a year in jail, said Shepard.

“If, in fact, a candidate for municipal office solicited funds for his/her campaign in a government building, that would appear to violate Florida’s ethics laws,” Shepard emailed VoxPopuli. “In addition to possible ethics and criminal charges, if that candidate is also an incumbent, such action could be viewed as malfeasance, which is grounds for recall from the candidate’s current office if citizens were to pursue it.”

Reached by phone, Oliver said he was unaware that soliciting campaign donations from within government buildings was a violation of campaign finance law.

“You called me out,” he said. “I looked it up. It is a violation. You’re right. That’s accountability. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. So what am I gonna do to correct it? I'm gonna take that video down. I'm gonna correct that.”

He added: “We're all not perfect. We're all gonna make mistakes. It's a matter of are you going to be held accountable? And if you are held accountable, will you own up to it and correct it?”

Oliver said that he had not sent the video to anyone except VoxPopuli. However, the video was posted on Dec. 26, and had 51 views as of Jan. 4. Oliver attributed the views to people seeking it out on his YouTube channel. “It's probably because I didn't lock it. But I will go and lock it down,” he said.

Oliver sent VoxPopuli a link to the video on Jan. 3 in response to a text question about whether he planned to run for mayor. Oliver replied that he had “already announced my plan to run for Mayor” and then sent the video link titled Important Announcement from George Oliver III. At the start of the video, Oliver asks recipients not to share the video or post it on social media.

Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said neither he nor the Ocoee city clerk — whom, he said, functions as the city’s supervisor of elections for local elections — have “investigative powers.” Complaints, he added, should be filed with the Florida Elections Commission.

“It gets more complicated with a sitting commissioner who has yet to resign to run for mayor,” Cowles said. “But the bottom line is if someone wants to make a challenge, they have to make a challenge to the state. I’ll be honest with you, it’s not a quick turnaround. But it is on the record.”

This is not the first time Oliver has found himself in hot water over a video. In November, he released  a video, also recorded in the commission chambers, ahead of the city commission vote to restructure the Human Relations Diversity Board. In the video, he alleged, without evidence, that District 2 Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen, worked "behind the scenes" with the mayor and the HRDB Chair Lori Hart to claw back $100,000 that the commission had allocated to the HRDB for cultural events. Hart resigned over this issue. She did not respond to a request for comment. 

"I can tell you where the proof is," Oliver said. "Go back and watch a few commission meetings, see how we vote. Listen to the comments that's being said and how they're being said. Listen to the mayor saying, I wish Rosemary was here 'cause I know she wouldn't vote for it. What is one to think when he's making statements like that? You tend to think that there's some conversations that's going on behind the scenes." 

Wilsen could barely contain her fury about Oliver's video during the Nov. 15 city commission meeting. "Saying that the mayor and I are working behind the scenes — Oh hell no! Sorry, my mouth is coming out now. Because 'behind the scenes' means to me that we're doing a little back room politics. We don't do that here. If anyone knows me, we don't do that here. I don't do that here. I'm the first one to talk to you about Sunshine Law. Sunshine Law means you don't talk in the back room, you only talk here."

Oliver also alleged that three HRDB members  — Brad Lomneck, Scott Kennedy and Jason Mellen — all of whom are white and described in the video as "friends of the mayor," were added to the board by the mayor to "misdirect, slow down progress and cause dissention and confusion." 

The mayor cannot single-handedly appoint members to a board; members require a majority vote of the commission for approval. Kennedy told VoxPopuli in a phone interview that he had been asked to join HRDB by Bill Maxwell, the longest serving board member, who is Black. Lomneck told VoxPopuli that he had been motivated to join the board because he supports diversity, and as a "fiscal conservative," wanted to see how the board was managing its budget. Mellen said he responded to a commission request for members. All three were confirmed by the entire commission — Lomneck and Kennedy in January and Mellen in April. 

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