By Steve Contorno
U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, already facing a federal probe into his 2018 campaign, may have more trouble on his hands.
The Florida Bar is also investigating whether alleged campaign finance violations by Spano ran afoul of the rules of conduct for state lawyers. If they did, Spano, who has practiced law in Florida for 22 years, could face punishment from the Bar.
The Dover Republican acknowledges his campaign likely broke the law, but he insists it was a mistake and not malicious. Complaints to the Federal Elections Commission and the Office of Congressional Ethics alleged that Spano illegally loaned his campaign $180,000 that was borrowed from two friends.
Those loans should have been considered contributions to his campaign and subject to campaign finance limits. Spano, who previously served in the Florida Legislature, said he didn’t know the loans were illegal.
After this story published, Spano’s campaign manager Morgan Parrish accused the Tampa Bay Times of “doing the work of the left,” and said, “At no time has Rep. Spano been contacted by the Florida Bar about an ongoing inquiry or open complaint regarding campaign filings.”
“While his opponents fiercely seek to attack his character and work in Washington, the fact is, Ross continues working to make the lives of all FL-15 residents better,” Parrish said.
Florida Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker confirmed that Spano “is currently under investigation by The Florida Bar regarding possible campaign finance violations stemming from a campaign loan that may not have been disclosed properly.” She added the Bar may reach out to Spano for additional information as the investigation proceeds.
In a recent interview with WTSP-Ch. 10, Spano offered a new explanation for why he took the loans: He saw someone else do it.
Spano said he recalled Frank White, one of his opponents in the 2018 Republican primary for Florida attorney general, borrowing $1 million from his wife and giving it to his campaign.
“There was a headline in the Tampa Bay Times: Frank White borrows $1 million from his wife,” Spano told WTSP-Ch. 10. “I had never borrowed money for my campaign before, so based on our own series of events and our minds, we’re looking at each other in our campaign circles, ‘Man it’d be nice to have a wife with $1 million bucks, wouldn’t it?’ “
There was more to the Times’ coverage of White’s campaign finances irregularities. It was actually $1.5 million that White received from his wealthy wife and donated to his own campaign, and the Times reported then that an election expert thought the contribution could be illegal. Spano dropped out of that race to run for Congress, and White lost the primary.
It’s not the only inconsistency in the interview.
Spano also said he disclosed the loan on a financial disclosure report “before it became public knowledge.”
However, Spano failed to file his federally mandated financial disclosure by the July 2018 deadline. He didn’t submit the paperwork until just before election day, after the Times inquired about the missing report, and for months no one knew the source of the $167,000 he loaned his campaign. A campaign finance report said it was a personal loan.
And Spano was initially coy about the source of the loan. He told a Times reporter that it may have come from his wife. “State disclosures don’t require us to indicate anything that my wife has,” Spano said. “She can certainly loan it to me.” Days later, disclosures showed the loans came from Carey Carreno of Valrico, a long-time friend and business associate, and Karen Hunt.
Spano described Carreno to WTSP-Ch. 10 as a “buddy” who wanted to help the campaign. Carreno was also Spano’s treasurer during his 2012 race for state representative, where there were similar red flags about the source of some of the campaign funds. And it was Carreno who fired Spano’s 2018 campaign treasurer after the potentially illegal donations surfaced.
In November, the House Ethics Committee announced that the Department of Justice asked the committee to defer its investigation. Such a move usually signals federal probe, and Spano has acknowledged he is cooperating with investigators.
If the Department of Justice is investigating, “it is highly likely that we will monitor that case,” Walker, the Bar spokeswoman, said.
If the Bar determines Spano’s alleged offense would warrant discipline, then the investigation will continue and a grievance committee will decide if there is probable cause.
The Bar was already investigating Spano for trying to enter a secure House Intelligence Committee room during the impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump. Spano didn’t have the security clearance to be in the room.
Spano represents Florida District 15, which covers northeastern Hillsborough, northwestern Polk and southern Lake counties. State Rep. Adam Hattersley and former television journalist Alan Cohn are running in the Democratic primary to challenge Spano, among others.
Cohn immediately responded to Spano’s latest troubles in a statement that said the Republican “must be held accountable.”
“We need a member of Congress who calls out wrong-doing – not one who engages in it,” Cohn said.
Read the full story on Tampa Bay Times.