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MY VERO: Campaign audit letters, other issues dog Sykes

Maybe there’s no more to any of this than Lange Sykes says there is – a series of innocent mistakes in filing his monthly campaign treasurer’s reports with the state, a decision to hire a political expert despite the consultant’s controversial connections, and a coincidence.

Maybe none of these concerns will have any bearing on his pursuit of the District 54 seat in the Florida House of Representatives.

That’s for the county’s Republican voters to decide when they cast their ballots in the Aug. 30 primary.

Before they go to the polls, however, they might want to ask themselves:

 Does it matter that Sykes, a Riomar resident and first-time candidate, already has received – as of Monday – a whopping 19 audit letters from the Florida Division of Elections, which has cited several of his campaign treasurer’s reports for errors and/or omissions?

 Do they care that Sykes, a beachside realtor, artist and environmental activist, hired a political consultant who is a partner with Front Line Strategies, the same Tallahassee-based public relations firm that lobbies for All Aboard Florida?

 Are they at all troubled by the fact that Sykes’ paid consultant, Matt Mohler, once supervised James Christian Bailey, when the St. Petersburg College student-support specialist worked briefly as a researcher at Front Line Strategies in 2010? Bailey’s write-in candidacy closed the District 54 Republican primary, shutting out Democrats and Independents.

Sykes denied any connection to Bailey.

“I have no knowledge of the candidacy of Bailey,” Sykes wrote in an email responding to several questions pertaining to the issues mentioned above. “I’m focused on my race, and I am committed to winning despite who else gets into the race.”

Bailey’s past ties to Mohler may just be a coincidence.

However, Sykes’ decision to hire Mohler – a St. Edward’s graduate and Florida State University alumnus who founded the Young Republicans of Indian River County, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Vero Beach City Council in 2006 and is politically well-connected in the community – was anything but a coincidence.

Sykes believes Mohler can help him beat Vero Beach attorney Erin Grall, prison ministry founder Dale Glading and local physician Greg MacKay to claim the District 54 House seat currently occupied by Debbie Mayfield, who can’t run again because of term limits and, instead, is seeking election to the Florida Senate.

How much does Sykes believe in Mohler? According to the state Division of Elections website, Sykes’ campaign already has paid Front Line Strategies more than $125,000 in consulting fees.

Clearly, winning matters more to Sykes than Mohler’s affiliation with the firm helping All Aboard Florida get the governmental and public support it needs to launch its high-speed, Orlando-to-Miami, passenger-rail service – a project fiercely opposed by most folks here.

“I hired Matt Mohler because he is from Indian River County and has expertise in getting people elected across the state of Florida,” Sykes wrote. “He knows that I am passionately opposed to All Aboard, and we have agreed to disagree on that issue. I don’t talk to him about any race other than my own.”

Sykes said he has been an “outspoken opponent” of All Aboard Florida since “Day 1,” adding, “No one can ever hire a consultant with which they fully agree on each issue.”

He then referred to “his main opponent” and alleged that Grall “has hired a consultant who is not from Vero and has represented clients who have supported Obamacare, Common Core and the Trial Bar’s position on reversing key lawsuit reforms that have benefited small businesses.”

Sykes said he has not “made an issue” of Grall’s consultant and was “fairly confident” she wouldn’t, either.

Grall’s Tampa-based campaign consultant, Anthony Pedicini, did take issue with Sykes’ claims, however, saying that all of Sykes’ claims about him and his firm, Strategic Image Management, are untrue – except that he’s not from Vero.

“He’s a liar,” Pedicini said. “What he said is an outright lie. That’s an act of desperation.”

Pedicini also ripped Sykes for his “sloppiness” in filing the campaign treasurer’s reports, saying “19 audit letters is a lot” and questioning Sykes’ decision to serve as his own treasurer.

“When you get that many letters, you’re obviously not taking the time to do the forms correctly,” Pedicini said. “Candidates are really busy campaigning, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time to do your own forms.”

All three of the District 54 candidates who have accepted campaign contributions – MacKay is self-funding his run – have received multiple audit letters from the state Division of Elections, which has cited various errors and omissions.

But Sykes’ 19 are more than twice the eight received by Glading and nearly five times more than the four received by Grall.

Both Grall and Glading have campaign treasurers.

The mistakes listed in the candidates’ audit letters range from exceeding contribution limits to invalid expenditures to a transaction being reported in the wrong class or coverage period. Most of them, though, seemed to be minor: failing to provide a proper address, or specifically identifying the occupation or business of a donor, or simply putting the correct information in the wrong place on the form.

However, on three occasions – two in 2015, one this year – the Division of Elections sent follow-up letters because Sykes didn’t correct his mistakes within the requested seven-day period. The latter dispute prompted the DOE to send a “Final Notice,” which included the threat of civil penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.

Asked about these audit letters, Sykes wrote: “All of these back and forth are extremely minor. Many candidates who raise a lot of money have similar type issues, including my main opponent in this race. She and I have both raised a lot of money, and keeping up with the procedural detail can sometimes be a bear.”

He said his campaign has not incurred any penalties.

In his defense, Sykes, 30, is new to the political process. His entry into public life began with his work to rally local residents to environmental issues associated with the Indian River Lagoon.

This is his first run for office, which probably explains his decision to serve as his own campaign treasurer – a decision I questioned, asking if he should have let someone else handle his campaign finances.

“I have been working with a campaign compliance volunteer,” he wrote, adding, “But thanks for the suggestion.”

Sykes hasn’t received an audit letter since June 15, so his problems with the Division of Elections appear to have been resolved without too much damage being done.

As for any potential problems stemming from Mohler’s connections to All Aboard Florida and a write-in candidate from across the state, they’ll be resolved on Aug. 30.

That’s when the county’s Republican voters will decide if there’s more to this than Sykes is saying.

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