Nolte violated finance laws during Polk County School Board campaign

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Rick Nolte, newly elected to the Polk County School Board, is facing a complaint that he violated a state campaign finance law with cash contributions made by himself and his supporters.

Billy Townsend of Lakeland, a former school board member, filed a complaint this week with the Florida Elections Commission. Townsend cited Nolte’s campaign finance disclosures, in which he reported a $5,200 cash loan to his campaign and a series of 10 cash donations of $100 each from others.

A Florida law covering campaign finance limits contributions made to a candidate by cash or cashier’s check to $50 per election. The law states that anyone who makes or accepts a contribution greater than this amount is committing a first degree misdemeanor.

Willfully making or accepting a cash contribution of more than $5,000 is a third-degree felony, according to the law. In his complaint, Townsend charges Nolte with both misdemeanors and felonies.

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Donna Ann Malphurs, an agency clerk with the Florida Elections Commission, said complaints and related documents are confidential until the agency determines probable cause. She said she could not confirm whether the commission received Townsend’s complaint.

Townsend shared a receipt showing the letter was delivered by UPS on Tuesday.

Malphurs also said via email that the commission “is not authorized to provide or render legal advice, give advice, and/or interpret the election code.”

Malphurs referred a reporter to the Florida Division of Elections for interpretations of state law. Mark Ard, spokesman for the State Department, which oversees the Division of Elections, acknowledged an email sent Friday morning and said he would keep in touch.

A call to Nolte’s cell phone Friday morning went unanswered and did not go to voicemail. Nolte did not respond to a text message or email. He did not respond to any previous interview requests from The Ledger.

In a campaign treasurer’s report released by the Polk County Supervisor of Elections, Nolte disclosed a loan of $5,200 to his campaign on March 10. It is described as money under the heading “contribution type”.

Nolte said he repaid the $5,200 loan to himself on May 26.

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In another report covering the period from August 6 to 18, Nolte reported 10 contributions of $100 each from separate individuals. Each is described as “cash”.

In addition to the loan, Nolte reported three contributions to his own campaign totaling $15,200. The source of each is labeled as verification.

Nolte acknowledged an error in a letter sent to the Office of the Supervisor of Elections and dated Aug. 26. The letter reads (in unedited form):

“I didn’t realize that the maximum cash contribution to my campaign was $50 cash per person. I thought it was $100. After reporting the 10 donations of $100, it came to my attention. I have now, since realizing this error, returned $50 in cash to each of the 10 donors. Please accept my apologies for this error and let me know if there is anything else I should do to correct my error.

The letter does not mention Nolte’s self-reported $5,200 cash loan. The Office of the Supervisor of Elections is not responsible for enforcing state election laws.

Elections Supervisor Lori Edwards said Nolte can report any final financial activity from her campaign in a “dismissal report,” which must be delivered to her office by Nov. 21.

Informed of Nolte’s letter, Townsend said in a text message: ‘I assume the relevant authorities will request the appropriate checks and receipts. It seems very strange that he admits 10 “accidental” misdemeanors, but has nothing to say about loaning himself $5,200 in cash, which certainly sounds like a felony in the law.

A document Nolte submitted to the Office of the Supervisor of Elections last November listed Mulberry’s Dennis Elliott as his campaign treasurer.

The Ledger left voicemails for two of the supporters listed as making $100 cash contributions to Nolte in August. Neither had responded by Friday afternoon.

Nolte, a retired PE teacher and Mulberry resident, ousted outgoing school board member Sarah Fortney in the Aug. 23 election for District 3, winning just under 51 percent of the vote. He will take office in November.

Nolte reported total campaign receipts of $44,409, compared to Fortney’s $38,181.

Nolte was one of four candidates endorsed and promoted by the Polk County Republican Party in the nonpartisan election. He signed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ‘Education Agenda’ pledge, which included pledges to avoid school closings, ‘keep gender ideology out of schools’ and reject critical race theory , which is not taught in any public school in Polk County.

Nolte was the only candidate to receive an endorsement from DeSantis, who endorsed 30 candidates statewide. Fortney received the endorsement of the Polk County Democratic Party.

Townsend served on the Polk County School Board from 2016-2020 and now writes a digital newsletter focused on education and politics. He regularly criticized Nolte and two other conservative candidates for the school board during the campaign.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

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