School Board member Rick Nolte took the oath of office last month, with his daughter, Jenna Sutton, by his side. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Polk County School Board member Rick Nolte has belatedly updated his campaign finance records and said that questions about the legality of a $5,200 cash donation or loan he made to his election campaign in March are “being taken care of.”

Nolte’s campaign filed amended campaign finance forms on Friday, 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.”

Former School Board member Billy Townsend has filed several complaints against Nolte with the Florida Elections Commission contending he violated campaign finance laws. The Florida Elections Commission investigates and determines violations of Florida State Statutes 104 and 106, but only after receiving either a legally sufficient sworn complaint or information reported to it by the Florida Division of Elections.

Nolte’s campaign finance documents, found online with the Polk County Supervisor of Elections, show a March 10 “cash” donation by Nolte to his campaign.  It exceeds the $50 limit and the $5,000 threshold that elevates a violation from a misdemeanor to a felony under Florida State Statute 106.09, which deals with cash contributions: “Any person who knowingly and willfully makes or accepts a contribution in excess of $5,000 … commits a felony of the third degree.”

Florida Statute 106.08, which limits campaign donations, makes an exception for the candidate, who can write a check to his or her campaign for as much as they want. But it has to be in the form of a check.

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.  But both the March 10 cash donation and the May 26 check were listed as “contributions,” not loans. In another instance, his campaign indicated that a Feb. 2 $8,000 check from Nolte to his campaign was a loan.

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. He has also amended his campaign finance documents to reflect that. He did not address the $5,200 cash contribution to himself in the letter.

“Him switching it doesn’t mean anything,” Townsend said Thursday.  “Loan or contribution does not matter – it’s the cash that matters.”

Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said there is “no letter regarding the $5,200 March 10th donation,” but that Nolte had filed a number of amendments to his report.

Robert Jarvis, a professor at the Shepard Broad College of Law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, told LkldNow in September that “Nolte has a problem” and that he appears in violation of 106.09, committing a third degree felony. He said if it had it been below $5,000, it would have been a first-degree misdemeanor.

However, on Thursday, Jarvis said he thinks changing it to a loan “would make a difference.”

“If the $5,200 was a bona fide loan, as the Florida Division of Elections points out on its web page, ‘Loans are considered contributions; however, loans made by candidates to their own campaigns are not subject to contribution limitations,’ ” Jarvis wrote in an email. “The question here is what did Nolte intend at the time he made the payment — was it a contribution that he now is claiming was a loan, or was it an actual loan? Of course, it is very hard to prove intent, which goes to a person’s state of mind.  Prosecutors don’t like to bring intent cases because it is so hard to prove what the defendant’s intent was (unless there are witnesses, for example, who can say, ‘X told me he was making a contribution.’).  Thus, I would expect that Nolte will be allowed to amend and the most he will get is a slap on the wrist for sloppy bookkeeping (i.e., not correctly listing the money as a loan when it was first entered in his campaign’s financial records).”

Jarvis pointed to the 2003 case Diaz De La Portilla v. Florida Elections Commission in which the Florida Third District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of State Sen. Alex Diaz De La Portilla, who had given his campaign $10,000.

‘‘The $10,000 customer deposit/cash contribution deposited in the campaign account on November 30, 1999, was, in fact, a campaign loan from Respondent in the form of a transfer from Respondent’s personal account … The administrative law judge found that
there was no violation of the prohibition on cash contributions in excess of $100 and,
since this was a loan from the candidate, there was no violation of the contribution
limits.”

Informed of Jarvis’ interpretation, former School Board member Townsend said: “On my quick reading, it does not offer a blanket allowance of cash ‘loans’ above $50. And it says that a ‘loan’ is a ‘contribution.’

“It says the nature of the transfer matters and that has to be closely adjudicated. I think if he transferred $5,200 from a bank account somehow that wasn’t bills it’s not illegal, according to this decision. However, if Nolte put $5,200 in bills into his campaign account — and his business works heavily in cash, apparently — I think he’s still on the hook.”

In his newsletter, “Public Enemy No. 1,” Townsend has been criticizing State Attorney Brian Haas and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd for not filing charges against Nolte.  Jacob Orr, a spokesperson for the State Attorney’s office, noted on Wednesday that Nolte has filed his final accounting reports with the Polk County Supervisor of Elections. 

“As you know, the Florida Elections Commission is reviewing the financials associated with Nolte’s campaign,” Orr said.  “Discrepancies in campaign reporting matters can range from scriveners’ errors, civil violations, to intentional misrepresentations that violate criminal statutes.  The Elections Commission will determine whether violations occurred and, if appropriate, refer criminal violations to this office.”

On Thursday, Donna Malphurs, an agency clerk and public information officer with the Florida Elections Commission, said she could not comment.

“Unless it has reached a probable cause finding, the case would be confidential and I wouldn’t be able to admit or deny,” Malphurs said.  “I do not have any public records responsive to your request. Statutorily, we are prohibited from acknowledging a complaint or providing information about a complaint until after a probable cause determination. It can take as many as six months to resolve an alleged complaint.”

Teachers Cassandra Gibson and Bob Nickell silently protested School Board member Rick Nolte at the board’s meeting on Dec. 13. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Nolte got a rude welcome to the School Board during his first official meeting on Tuesday, with two teachers protesting Nolte during routine board member comments that come at the end of every School Board meeting.

As Nolte was called on to speak, Cassandra Gibson, a teacher at Union Academy in Bartow, and Bob Nickell, a teacher at Boone Middle School in Haines City, silently stood up, turned their backs to him and bowed their heads.

After the meeting, they both said Nolte’s campaign finance issues were part of the reason they chose to protest.

“I do not believe that he ran a clean campaign,” said Gibson, who is also a resident of Bartow. “I think there were illegal things about his campaign and I do not support him being my School Board member.”

Nickell called the campaign finance issues flagrant violations of Florida law.

“I’m just uncomfortable with felons being on the School Board,” said Nickell, who supported Nolte’s opponent in the race, then-School Board member Sarah Fortney.  “Mr. Nolte also signed a pledge not to indoctrinate their students.  Students don’t walk into my classroom straight and walk out gay.  Teachers do not indoctrinate students.”

During his comments, Nolte commended some of his friends who had spoken to the board about delaying the purchase of 37,000 books set for two new schools under construction, saying they needed time to make sure the books don’t contain pornography. The purchase didn’t come up for a vote because a motion for approval failed to obtain a second, but it will be brought up again next month.

“Thank you, people, for coming tonight because parents, grandparents, you’re the ones that have to get out there and follow what’s going on in schools — volunteer in your school, look and see what’s going on,” Nolte said. “Open your mouth when you think something’s going great. If you’re not sure about something and then you need to call us on it.”

Nolte also said he was “amazed at how big a complex” the district office is after spending the last two weeks meeting and getting to know department heads.  Polk County Public Schools is the seventh largest district in the state and in the top 30 districts in size in the country. It has at least 112,000 students and 13,000 employees.

In the hallway, following the meeting, Nolte was asked what he thought of the people protesting him about 15 feet straight in front of him.

“I didn’t notice that – I was trying to listen…” Nolte said. When it was pointed out that he was the one talking, he said, “I was looking at the back of the room.”

He was then asked the status of the investigation into his campaign finances.

“I haven’t heard anything other than it’s being taken care of,” Nolte said. When asked who told him that and how it was being taken care of, Nolte smiled and said, “I don’t know.  I don’t ask these reporter types of questions.”

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Kimberly C. Moore

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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