The Florida Bar confirmed on Monday that it was investigating Republican Rep. Ross Spano over loans made to his 2018 campaign that have embroiled him in legal trouble since before he was sworn in as a member of Congress last year.
Spano, who has practiced law in the state for decades and initially ran for attorney general last cycle, could face punishment from the bar, but that might be the least of his worries. In November, the House Ethics Committee announced that the Justice Department looking into whether Spano violated campaign finance laws during his successful bid for the House in Florida’s 15th District.
In December of 2018, not long before taking the oath of office, Spano admitted he might have broken federal election law by accepting personal loans worth $180,000 from two friends and then turning around and loaning his own campaign $170,000. That's a serious problem, because if you loan money to a congressional candidate with the intent of helping their campaign, you have to adhere to the same laws that limit direction contributions, which in 2018 capped donations at just $2,700 per person.
Spano recently offered a new excuse for his actions by telling WTSP that he thought what he did was permissible because he believed that then-state Rep. Frank White, who was one of his opponents during his short-lived run for attorney general, had done something similar.
“There was a headline in the Tampa Bay Times: Frank White borrows $1 million from his wife,” Spano said, apparently referring to this article from February of 2018. “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?”
Instead of a rich wife, he found some wealthy friends. Spano told WTSP that during the congressional contest he “had a buddy say, 'Would it help if I …' and I said, 'Well you know, yeah. Let me check.'” He continued, “So we believed we could do it based on experience. I'd never done it before, and got some counsel that we could. And we moved forward with it and operated under the assumption that we could.”
However, experts consulted by the Times opined at the time that White’s spousal assistance might in fact have been illegal—and in any event, White’s race for state office would have been governed by Florida law rather than federal statutes. (White later lost the primary).
Spano also insisted in his new interview that his congressional campaign had disclosed the loan “before it became public knowledge” in the financial disclosure forms all federal candidates are obligated to file. That, however, is flat out false: As the Times’ Steve Contorno explains, Spano has failed to file those disclosures by the July 2018 deadline, only submitting them just before Election Day—after the Times had asked about them. Only once those reports were public did the paper learn that the money for Spano’s questionable loans came from his friends.
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