A recently released report from the Florida Elections Commission shows that Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter's 2008 campaign was an utter mess, replete with bookkeeping errors, acceptance of excessive contributions from special interests, failure to report contributions and thousands of dollars in dubious "reimbursements" paid from the campaign account to her lobbyist husband, Russell Klenet.
In all, the FEC found probable cause that Ritter committed 28 first-degree misdemeanors during the course of her last campaign. The charges are civil in nature, meaning that jail time doesn't apply, though Ritter could get hit with fines up to $1,000 per violation.
A question is: Should this be investigated criminally? After all, the reports indicate that Klenet spent thousands from his wife's campaign account on expensive restaurants, hotels, and casinos. Nearly $900 in payments to Klenet from Ritter's campaign remain a mystery. There's also a very questionable campaign payment made to the phone company.
Inside, read the gruesome details.
So just how dubious were the reimbursements to Klenet?
Well, in the case of one $895.38 payment Ritter's campaign made to her husband, there was nothing to substantiate it all.
"Receipts were requested for this reimbursement; however, none of the receipts provided by [Ritter] correlated with this expenditure," wrote FEC Assistant General Counsel Joshua Moye in his recommendation report.
Nearly nine hundred bucks just goes poof in the air? And Ritter sent in bogus receipts to try to explain it? Not good.
All indications are that the money went to satisfy Klenet's lavish habits. In all, the campaign provided four checks to Klenet for vague "reimbursements." The Klenet reimbursement checks examined by the FEC totaled $5,348.66 in a roughly four-month period. The $895 phantom reimbursement notwithstanding, here's what Ritter provided to the FEC to justify the expenses paid to her husband, whose Twitter account indicates that he's a wine snob of the first degree (Example: "Before the fast Stacy made roast chicken, me a 2007 Brandlin cab (she had Blackberry Manishewitz, like a wayward child)").
-- On October 9, 2007, Ritter's campaign cut a reimbursement check to Klenet for $484.87. At the request of FEC investigators, Ritter supplied her husband's credit card records showing that he had spent $332.72 at swank and now-defunct Jackson's Steakhouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale and $152.12 at Cafe Bella Sera, a favorite restaurant of Ritter and Klenet's in Parkland, where they own a home.
-- On January 23, 2008, Ritter's campaign paid Russ Klenet a reimbursement check for $1,576.91. Ritter submitted five receipts to the FEC for the expenditure, three from Cafe Bella Sera, one from Jackson's Steakhouse, and one that was "not legible."
-- On February 27, 2008: Ritter's campaign paid Russ Klenet $2,391.50 listed as reimbursement. Ritter provided receipts for the expenditure that included two from the casino Isles of Pompano (better-known as the Isles of Capri), one from the Pillars Hotel at New River Sound (billed as "Fort Lauderdale's premier boutique hotel"), one from Jackson's Steakhouse, one from Romeo's Cafe, and one that was "not legible."
And that's just the tip of the iceberg -- Ritter's campaign reports indicate Klenet was actually reimbursed nearly $15,000 total. It's not clear why the other reimbursement checks weren't investigated by the FEC.
The four Klenet checks that were part of the investigation constitute four of the violations, alleging that Ritter, who served as her own (disastrous) campaign treasurer, "falsely reported or failed to report information that is required" under the law.
Again, I question whether the checks were legal in the first place, but that would be for the authorities to determine.
There is a lot more information in the report, such as Ritter's failure to report $5,000 in bundled contributions that came from the AMERA companies run by developers George Rahael and Charles Ladd. Also her acceptance of contributions from lobbyist Dave Ericks and attorney Thomas Marwood after she was officially unopposed for her seat on June 20, 2008. Ritter also accepted contributions above the $500 limit from lobbyist Neil Sterling and Florida Transportation Services Inc.
She also made bookkeeping errors on two separate thousand-dollar checks she paid to condo commando Norma Goldstein, a Kings Point retiree she has since put on the county payroll.
One expenditure that stands out, however, is a $1,470.18 check issued by the campaign to AT&T on December 20, 2007. According to the FEC report, her monthly billing statements didn't correspond to the payment, leaving it a mystery. "Monthly billing statements from AT&T were subpoenaed. However, the check did not correspond with the amount of any of the billing statements nor does the amount appear to be the total of multiple billing statements," Moye wrote in his report.
I have emailed Ritter for an explanation of the phone bill and the campaign expenditures paid to her husband. After all, conflicts of interest with her lobbyist husband have occurred numerous times (here's a one-stop shop for many of them).
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When news first broke of her elections violations a few weeks ago, Ritter released a videotaped statement to address the charges and to question the motives of the complainant in the case, attorney Brenda Chalifour. "Errors were discovered and have been addressed," she says on the tape. "Although any bookkeeping errors were clearly unintentional, I take full responsibility... there was no money missing from the campaign account."
No, apparently it was all reimbursed by Klenet. Here's the video in case you missed it first time around: