Polk School Board member-elect Rick Nolte’s $5,200 cash donation to his own campaign violates Florida law, according to a legal scholar with expertise in Florida election laws; Nolte declined to answer questions about the contribution on Thursday.

“Nolte has a problem,” said Robert Jarvis, a professor at the Shepard Broad College of Law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

Jarvis cited Florida Statute 106.09, which deals with cash contributions and says “any person who knowingly and willfully makes or accepts a contribution in excess of $5,000 … commits a felony of the third degree.”

Jarvis noted that in Florida Statute 106.08, which limits campaign donations, there is an exception for the candidate, who can write a check to his or her campaign for as much as they want. 

“Unlike Florida Statute 106.08, there is no candidate’s exception in Florida Statute 106.09,” Jarvis said. “I have looked for cases in which courts have been called on to interpret 106.09, but find none. Nevertheless, I do not believe that any Florida court would read into 106.09 the exception that exists in 106.08. Thus, I think Nolte did violate 106.09 when he gave his campaign $5,200 in cash.  And because this amount exceeds $5,000, it’s a third degree felony … Had it been below $5,000, it would have been a first-degree misdemeanor.”

Former School Board member Billy Townsend first brought the issue to light.

Nolte’s campaign finance report shows that on March 10, he made the cash donation to his campaign. He is listed as a contributor and the type of donation was listed as cash.

LkldNow met with Nolte at his golf club repair and manufacturing shop — located in a storage facility on Creative Drive in South Lakeland — where he was tending to customers buying golf clubs with cash. Nolte was reluctant to give an interview and would not allow a recording of the conversation. He did consent to a photograph while he worked.

When asked about the $5,200 cash donation, Nolte declined to answer.

“I’m not going to answer this because I was told not to,” Nolte said, although he would not say who advised him. “Since it’s being looked at right now I can’t really talk.”

When asked if he meant to write “check” instead of “cash.”, he said, “Yeah it was a clerical error, I believe.” 

On May 26, Nolte wrote his campaign a $5,200 check, listing it as a “contribution.” That same day, his campaign wrote Nolte a check for $5,200, labeling it as a “loan payback.” which is allowable for candidate donations that are loans to their campaigns.  Both the March 10th cash donation and May 26th check are listed as contributions, not loans. He apparently knows the difference because he indicated that a Feb. 2 $8,000 check to his campaign was a loan.

At his golf club shop, Nolte said he did not have his books in front of him, so he couldn’t speak about those checks. He claimed he didn’t know all of the complicated campaign finance laws.

“When you’re non-political like I am – I’ve never run for political office in my life,” he said.

Nolte also had an issue involving accepting 10 $100 cash donations from various supporters, twice the legal limit for cash contributions. Nolte wrote Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards a letter dated Aug. 26, saying he had refunded $50 to each of those contributors.

“I did not realize that the cash maximum contribution to my campaign was $50 cash per person. I thought it was $100,” Nolte wrote. “Please accept my apologies for this mistake and let me know if there is anything further I should do to correct my error.”

Edwards told LkldNow that Nolte needs to amend his campaign reports on this point, but, according to officials in Edwards’ office, by Thursday Sept. 15, he had yet to do so.  Edwards said the deadline is after the November election.

“He has to close out or do a termination report and that would be November 2022,” Edwards said.

She added that she did not want to discuss the $5,200 cash donation he made to himself, saying that is not her area of expertise.  She said the Florida Elections Commission would have to be contacted about the legality of the contribution.

Townsend has filed complaints with the Florida Elections Commission, including one regarding this $5,200 cash contribution.

An official with the Florida Elections Commission referred LkldNow to the Florida Division of Elections, which “facilitates coordination and interpretation of election laws and establishes uniform standards to ensure fair and accurate elections in Florida.”

LkldNow reached out to Mark Ard, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Elections, on Sept. 1, asking about the legality of a $5,200 cash donation a candidate made to himself.  Ard then asked for more information, including the candidate’s name.  He was told it was Nolte and given a link to the campaign finance report.

Ard did not respond before the Labor Day weekend, nor did he respond the following week.  He later explained that he was caring for a family member who had had surgery. 

But in a Sept. 14 email to LkldNow, Ard did not provide an answer as to whether Nolte’s cash contribution exceeding $5,000 to his own campaign was legal.

“Violations of campaign financing (Chapter 106, Florida Statutes) are generally referred to the Florida Elections Commission,” he wrote in an email.  “The FEC will ultimately determine whether the candidate violated any provision based on the facts and arguments presented to them.”

He did not respond when told in a follow-up email that the FEC referred LkldNow to his office.

Townsend raised another question about Nolte’s campaign finance reports, filing another complaint with the Florida Elections Commission.  Nolte reported that he contracted with a Kansas City, Mo., printing company — Summit Printing – for nearly $7,330 on at least four occasions:

  • $2,172 for signs on March 24
  • $1,013 for marketing on April 26
  • $2,719 for shirts on June 5
  • $1,425 for signs on Aug. 1

His records also show expenditures with local vendors for similar items:

  • $829 with Dixie Signs on Drane Field Road in Lakeland for road signs on April 20
  • $1,471 with Dixie Signs for road signs on Aug. 18
  • $1,664 with Legion Marketing in Lakeland for shirts on June 30. (Legion could be a typo because there is a Ligon Marketing in Lakeland at the post office box that Nolte listed for Legion.)
  • $9,064 with Mail Processing Assoc. in Lakeland for printed mailers on Aug. 2

Townsend received a voicemail from Summit Printing owner David Vancura, saying he did not print T-shirts. 

Summit’s website shows it contracts with printers throughout the United States, including one in Miami. The company offers free delivery.

LkldNow left two phone messages and sent three emails to Vancura, trying to confirm Nolte’s transactions.

On Monday, a man saying he was with Summit Printing refused to confirm any of the transactions with Nolte, saying it was a privacy issue and he would not divulge this information to anyone if we had done business with him. Then he demanded we stop calling and emailing before hanging up on a LkldNow reporter.

Nolte also claimed he didn’t know about the Summit Printing expenses.

“I don’t know – that’s my son. I don’t know anybody out of state that does that. One of my committees did that,” Nolte said. He has said his son, Ren Nolte, worked for his campaign, along with Nolte’s daughter.

When LkldNow pointed out that his campaign also paid local companies like Dixie Signs and Ligon Marketing for similar services, Nolte said, “Then my campaign person accountant must’ve screwed up the name.” 

Nolte also denied that his campaign used the services of James Dunn, a Texas campaign consultant who has been convicted on federal fraud charges for claiming to provide $300,000 in educational rehabilitative services to veterans and disabled people when he did not. Campaign finance records show Dunn worked for Jill Sessions, who is in a runoff against incumbent Lisa Miller, and Terry Clark, who lost in the primary to incumbent Kay Fields after Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd endorsed her.  Clark wrote in an email to his supporters that Dunn was doing work for him, Sessions and Nolte.

When asked what work Dunn had done for his campaign, Nolte said, “None … I’m just an honest guy trying to help the kids out.”

Nolte was elected to the Polk County School Board in a close race against incumbent Sarah Fortney on Aug. 23. He was the only candidate in four Polk County School Board races who was endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. As a board member, he will help to oversee the district’s $2.2 billion budget.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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