Records were sent to commissioners ahead of the workshop that may replace forfeiture hearing.
One former Winter Garden city commissioner appears determined that District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller gets some kind of comeuppance for his alleged charter violations after the commission voted last week to table the forfeiture hearing in favor of a workshop on charter language and interactions with city staff.
Mueller is running for re-election.
Scheduled for Jan. 18, the workshop was not intended to “target” Mueller, City Attorney Kurt Ardaman said at last week’s city commission meeting. Rather it was to be a “discussion about what happens when a commissioner takes certain actions, whether it's email, a direction, or a communication with staff.”
Two days ahead of the workshop (cancelled because Mayor John Rees was ill), former District 2 Commissioner Bob Buchanan, who stepped down in 2021 after 14 years, sent a copy of Mueller’s Nov. 21, 2023, “Consent and Final Order” from the Florida Elections Commission (FEC) to all commissioners and the city manager.
The email states, in part:
“Regarding your upcoming workshop, Please [sic] see attached public record in reference to Ron Mueller’s recent Consent and Final Order by the Florida Elections Commission investigating Ron Mueller and fining him $750. [sic] for improper reporting of campaign funds. More specifically $5000 [sic] that was listed as an expenditure but not supported by bank records.”
The FEC document notes the $5,000 expenditure was for Em Agency, a Winter Garden advertising agency.
VoxPopuli spoke to Jamie Ezra Mark, owner of Em Agency, who confirmed Friday in a phone interview that the expenditure was for 2021 campaign materials. Mark said that Mueller “hired us for a minor project,” and that “$5,000 sounds about right.”
He added that any suggestion of impropriety, that Mueller pocketed the five grand himself is false.
“There’s no question he paid us for the work, and $5,000 sounds right,” Mark said.
Mueller told VoxPopuli in a Friday phone interview that when it came time to pay Em Agency, his campaign account was out of funds, so he advanced himself cash from his personal VISA account to pay the invoice.
“The Ethics Commission only looked at the campaign account,” Mueller said. “They didn't look for any other records, so their statement is accurate in the sense that it wasn't taken from campaign funds. But it wasn't missing money or unreported. It was reported on the record. I just advanced myself cash from my VISA account to pay the bill.
“Bob Buchanan is suggesting that we shouldn't pay our local businesses for the work they're doing and that's just wrong,” Mueller said.
Buchanan, who endorsed Iliana R. Jones during her unsuccessful 2021 campaign for District 2 commissioner, did not respond to email questions about whether he sent the letter to commissioners on behalf of Iliana R. Jones’ current campaign and how widely he distributed the letter.
While Mueller was fined $750 for also failing to report contributions totaling $300, a $10 expenditure and under-reporting a $34.99 VistaPrint expense, Jones was also cited by the FEC for 2021 election law violations.
Jones was fined $900 in 2022 for violating the same election law Mueller was cited for: Florida Statute 106.07(5) —“certify[ing] as to the correctness of each [financial] report …” In her case, Jones credited a personal contribution of $5,000 as $350 and did not list two advertising expenses totaling $1,590. The reports were corrected before the filing deadline.
Jones was also cited for not having a “Paid for by …” disclaimer on some of her political signs. At the time, she told VoxPopuli it was a printing mishap.
"I thought it was just a printing error,” she said in a 2021 interview. “When I realized what happened, I tried to find out which signs didn’t have the wording and … correct it."
Jones did not respond to a request for additional comment.
State and local elections expert Aubrey Jewett said via email that these kinds of slip-ups are merely “rookie errors.”
“Florida (like many states) has a lot of rules and regulations governing campaigns, and it is not uncommon for people running for local office to make mistakes concerning filing financial documents or including proper disclaimers on political signage,” said Jewett, PhD, associate professor in the University of Central Florida's School of Politics, Security and International Affairs.
Jewett said that candidates running for higher office can often afford to hire the kinds of experienced campaign staff who understand election laws to supervise these tasks while those running at the local level don’t have that money to spend.
“[They] either do it themselves or have inexperienced friends or supporters assisting the campaign who are not as familiar with the rules,” he said.
“One of the ironies of Florida politics is that there are a lot of picky rules and regulations about raising and spending money and campaign advertising that are supposed to help ensure that wealthy people don't have undue influence in the political process, and that voters have more faith in the process,” Jewett continued. “But then frequently candidates may inadvertently violate those rules and laws, causing voters to worry even more about corruption and unethical conduct leading lawmakers to enact even more laws and restrictions.”
As for Mueller, he'd long ago considered this case closed. " [Mrs. Jones’ violations] were fixed, as were mine. We each paid a few dollars and we moved on,” he said. “The fact that Mr. Buchanan wants to call everybody out on this at the cost of all our reputations, is just sad.”