The Florida Elections Commission has found that Polk County School Board member Rick Nolte violated state election laws last year by donating $5,200 cash to his own campaign and accepting ten $100 cash donations from participants in a golf tournament.
By state law, the maximum allowable campaign contribution in cash is $50 per person in any given election.
In a negotiated deal, Nolte admitted the violations and agreed to pay a civil penalty of $1,250.
The judgment says: “The Commission finds that the Respondent violated Sections 106.09(1)(a) and 106.09(1)(b), Florida Statutes, and imposes a civil penalty in the amount of $1,250.”
The FEC’s conclusion comes nearly a year after former School Board member Billy Townsend filed a complaint with the commission after spotting the improper contributions in Nolte’s campaign finance reports.
Felony charge likely averted
With the negotiated consent order, Nolte appears to have escaped a more serious admonishment for making and accepting a $5,200 cash donation to his own campaign.
Townsend noted the elections commission and Nolte both acknowledged that Nolte gave his campaign $5,200 in cash, which is a felony.
“I would think that the State Attorney’s Office would want to look at that fact,” Townsend said. “The Florida Elections Commission decided to punish him civilly, but the people who prosecute crime criminally are going to have to weigh in on the fact that Nolte has stipulated in a consent order that he committed what the statutes say is a felony.”
Townsend pointed out that Nolte was endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, but that shouldn’t matter in a criminal case.
“They ought to prosecute Rick Nolte. And it shouldn’t matter who endorsed him,” Townsend said.
State Attorney’s Office spokesman Jacob Orr received a copy of the FEC order late Wednesday afternoon from LkldNow and said the office would provide a comment after it had a chance to review it.
On Wednesday, Nolte’s election rival, then-incumbent Sarah Fortney, questioned whether he should remain on the School Board. Nolte narrowly defeated Fortney, garnering 50.97% of 101,682 votes to her 49.03%.
“He had to commit an election crime to win by a small margin,” Fortney said. “It says a lot about who he is and the people that pushed their agenda. We have a liar and a cheater on a school board. Shouldn’t this be grounds for dismissal?”
LkldNow reached out to Nolte for a comment, but did not hear back.
Three-month wait for approval of deal
Nolte accepted and signed the FEC consent order on May 23, but a hearing on the matter wasn’t held until Tuesday, Aug. 15 because the FEC only meets quarterly. According to an FEC attorney, neither Nolte nor his attorney spoke.
However, in the court filing, Nolte said as a first-time candidate, he wasn’t aware of the limits. When he realized the contributions were improper, he contacted Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards’ office to ask for guidance.
He then refunded the $5,200 donation by writing a campaign account check to “cash” and endorsing the check himself. Then he wrote the campaign a $5,200 check from his business account, “Nolte’s Golf,” and wrote in the memo line, “Loan to campaign,” on May 26, 2022. Nolte endorsed the check. He also refunded to 10 contributors $50 each.
He amended his campaign finance report to reflect all of the refunds and the $5,200 loan, which is legal.
Townsend, who had logged into Tuesday’s FEC meeting via a teleconference service, was left in its electronic waiting room for several hours.
By then the hearing was over and an attorney for the FEC was apologetic, acknowledging she had forgotten to push a button that would’ve allowed Townsend to hear the meeting. He would not have been allowed to speak. She sent him an audio recording of it on Wednesday along with the consent order, which the commission approved.
A contentious election with other pending charges
Last year saw one of the most contentious School Board races in recent memory. County Citizens Defending Freedom, an ultra-conservative group, claimed that teachers and School Board members were indoctrinating students and called for their followers to vote for four Republican candidates in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan race.
CCDF officials introduced four of the Republican candidates to a campaign consultant they had met in Texas. James Dunn became a campaign consultant for two candidates in the race: Jill Sessions and Terry Clark. Both lost.
But the State Attorney’s Office filed charges against Dunn in March with seven misdemeanors for allegedly violating text message disclosure requirements.
State Attorney Brian Haas’ office said Dunn sent anonymous text messages to Republican voters, falsely claiming that School Board member Lisa Miller and her husband, Bob, were “the subject of a criminal investigation,” falsely claiming that Lisa Miller was the subject of a Polk County Public Schools investigation, and making a false accusation that Miller is racist. Miller won re-election, despite the false accusations.
The misdemeanor charges came after a seven-month investigation. Dunn has hired an attorney and is fighting the charges. Dunn, who has a previous federal felony conviction, faces up to a year in jail if found guilty.
A 2008 news release issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General shows Dunn pleaded guilty to one count of submitting fraudulent claims for more than $300,000 to the government between 2002 and 2004, when he was the owner and operator of the now-defunct Rehab Specialist Inc. and claiming to be providing vocational training to veterans and people with disabilities. He served nearly three years in prison.
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