State Attorney Brian Haas has decided not to prosecute School Board member Rick Nolte for multiple campaign finance violations, for which he was fined $1,250 by the Florida Elections Commission.
“There is evidence of sloppy accounting; however, there is no evidence of criminal activity,” Chief Assistant State Attorney Jacob Orr wrote in an email to LkldNow and The Ledger. “There is no criminal case to prosecute in this matter.”
The Florida Elections Commission found in mid-August that Nolte, who was elected in August 2022, violated state election laws last year by donating $5,200 cash to his own campaign on March 10, 2022 and accepting 10 $100 cash donations from participants in a golf tournament between Aug. 12 and Aug. 15, 2022.
By state law, the maximum allowable campaign contribution in cash is $50 per person in any election. While a candidate may donate or loan an unlimited sum of money to their own campaign, it must be done by check, made out to the campaign. Nolte did write a check, but he made it out to “cash” instead. More than two months later, he refunded the $5,200 and then wrote a check to his campaign for the same amount as a loan.
Nolte belatedly updated his campaign finance records, filing amended campaign finance forms on Dec. 9, 2022 — 18 days after the deadline to finalize them. In them, the March 10 donation was changed from “cash” to “loan.” In September, he told LkldNow the March 10 cash listing was a “clerical error.”
By mid-September, Nolte had still not filed an amended campaign report, showing that he had refunded the ten $50 cash donations.
The FEC noted that on July 14, 2022, Nolte wrote a $500 check made out to “petty cash” and endorsed the check. He apparently told the FEC that the money was used to refund the cash donations.
Nolte and his attorney negotiated a deal with the FEC, admitted the violations and agreed to pay the civil penalty of $1,250.
State attorney’s decision
Orr had been waiting to receive a signed letter by the FEC before announcing Haas’ decision. Orr pointed out that Nolte admitted to the errors and corrected them. It is not clear if those corrections were made before or after former School Board member Billy Townsend wrote about them in his blog and filed a complaint with the FEC about the errors.
Townsend’s complaint letter was filed a week after Nolte defeated incumbent Sarah Fortney in the August 2022 primary. Fortney is a longtime friend of Townsend’s. Townsend called the potentially illegal contributions “clear evidence of incompetence, neglect of duty, misfeasance or malfeasance.”
Florida Statute 106.09 says it’s a misdemeanor for a person to make cash or cashier’s check donations of larger than $50 to a candidate or for a person to accept cash donations larger than $50. In addition, “Any person who knowingly makes or accepts a (cash) contribution in excess of $5,000 in violation of subsection 1 commits a felony of the third degree.”
Orr said because Nolte corrected the mistakes, amended his campaign finance reports, and negotiated an agreement with the FEC, there was no intent to commit a crime.
“All contributions that were accepted and reported would have been appropriate if the contributor wrote a check instead of using cash. The source of all the funds were reported and published on the Supervisor of Elections’ website. The excessive amounts were refunded prior to the election,” Orr wrote. “There is no evidence that Nolte ever concealed the source of any funds or the identity of the contributor. There is no evidence that Nolte received any contributions that exceeded lawful limits if given via check or credit card.”
As for the felony, Orr said again that it was a mistake on Nolte’s part, but not criminal.
“The largest contribution at issue was from Nolte himself. There is no law limiting the amount candidates can contribute to their campaign,” Orr stated. “He wrote a check payable to cash and contributed that cash when he should have written the check payable to his campaign. He corrected the error.”
Townsend called the state attorney’s office announcement “silly,” adding that neither the state attorney’s no one has done any kind of investigation to determine if everything Nolte has said is true.
“In Orr’s email, he said that Nolte refunded the $50 in cash misdemeanors — there is no evidence of that,” Townsend said. “There’s no receipt and no record of refunding it. It’s mind bending. The first time we see Nolte make any reference to this is three days after the election. The first thing we have is a letter by Nolte to the supervisor of elections saying it. To my knowledge, no one was aware of this until I wrote about it” on Aug. 24, with a more detailed report on Aug. 30.”
Townsend again called on the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and/or the state attorney’s office to investigate the matter.
“It is the responsibility of local law enforcement, which has not made any effort,” Townsend said. “The state attorney’s office would do Rick Nolte and everyone else a favor if they would verify Rick Nolte actually spent his money on what he said he spent it on. It shows how afraid they are of Ron DeSantis. The office should be ashamed of itself.”
Townsend also filed a complaint with the FEC regarding several questionable expenditures to Summit Printing out of Kansas City, Mo., for “signs, marketing and shirts.”
Nolte’s campaign reports show he reported that he contracted with 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
Nolte’s records also show $13,028 in expenditures with local vendors Dixie Signs, Ligon Marketing and Mail Processing Assoc. for similar items.
Townsend received a voicemail last year from Summit Printing owner David Vancura, saying he did not print T-shirts.
In early December, 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 in December. 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.”
Campaign consultant James Dunn
Nolte also denied that his campaign used the services of James Dunn, a Texas campaign consultant who has a federal fraud conviction for claiming to have provided $300,000 in educational rehabilitative services to veterans and disabled people when he did not.
Dunn is currently charged in Polk County with seven misdemeanors for school board campaign texts that falsely accused incumbent Lisa Miller and her husband Bob of being under investigation. They were not and are not. Dunn is charged with allegedly violating text message disclosure requirements.
Campaign finance records show Dunn worked for Jill Sessions, who lost against 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. Clark and Sessions both paid Dunn about $7,500 apiece.
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.”
Records provided by Townsend show Dunn formed a Political Action Committee in June 2022 called “Gulf Coast Community Action Agency – Protecting Our Kids” in “assisting conservative school board candidates.” On the form filled out by hand, it asks for the name, address, office sought and party affiliation of each candidate, or other individual that this committee is supporting. Dunn included Sessions, Clark, Nolte and School Board member Justin Sharpless.
On Thursday, Sharpless said he never received any money from the PAC and never hired Dunn to work for him.
“I told Dunn I wasn’t interested in using his services, even though he asked,” Sharpless said.
Townsend said the FEC dismissed the complaint about the $7,500 paid to Summit Printing without investigating it because, he said they told him, they are not an investigating agency but a complaint agency. Townsend wants law enforcement to look into Nolte’s expenditures to Summit Printing, concerned that fraud might have taken place, considering Dunn’s record of documented fraud and the current charges against him in Polk County.
“There are four suspicious expenditures that no one has verified that total $7,500, which is exactly the amount that everybody else paid James Dunn, who the state attorney’s office is prosecuting for campaign crimes,” Townsend said. “Terry Clark said Rick Nolte used James Dunn. James Dunn even formed a PAC, which was explicitly designed to support school board candidates, including Rick Nolte. He’s named in it.”
When reached by phone, Nolte said he had not heard about the state attorney’s decision and didn’t want to comment until he had seen the email.
“I’ll take a look at that,” Nolte said. “But I had not heard or seen the email. This is new to me.”
LkldNow shared the email, but Nolte did not call back with a comment.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd did not return a text, asking if his office would investigate the Summit Printing matter.
Townsend said Haas and Judd are playing favorites.
“Does anybody think if I had left this trail of campaign finance violations as a candidate that Grady Judd and Brian Haas wouldn’t have strung me up? They would’ve been right to string me up, too.” Townsend said.
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