Florida Democrats should find out by Friday if one of their candidates for attorney general could be knocked out of Tuesday’s primary election, which has already seen more than 500,000 Democratic ballots cast.
Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers said Wednesday she will try to rule quickly — given the limited window for an appeal — on a lawsuit arguing Ryan Torrens, a Hillsborough County attorney, should be decertified as a candidate for improperly feeding his campaign a check written in his wife’s name to help cover the qualifying fee for the Cabinet race.
The lawsuit was filed by Torrens’ primary opponent, state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa.
“I will give my order out as quickly as I can,” Gievers said after a three-hour hearing Wednesday.
Torrens also has filed a libel counter-claim, alleging that Shaw challenged the integrity of Torrens and Torrens’ wife, Francesca Yabraian. Gievers has given Torrens’ attorney until 10 a.m. Friday to respond to Shaw’s motion to dismiss the libel counter-claim.
The focus of the lawsuit is a $4,000 check that Torrens wrote on an account that is in his wife’s name but which he describes as a joint account. Torrens signed her name on the check.
On the stand Wednesday, Torrens said he got permission from his wife — who was out of town at the time — to write the check as the qualifying week began in June. However, Torrens denied that the check was written with the intent of providing his campaign the needed funds to cover the $7,738.32 qualifying fee on June 21.
Torrens said he often talked with his campaign treasurer about campaign funding, but he was not aware of how much was on hand on a daily basis.
“My campaign usually needs money,” Torrens said. “And when we were able to provide a $4,000 loan or contribution, or whatever you want to classify it as at the time, our campaign always needs resources, and we we’re willing to do that.”
Torrens, who has struggled for funding since opening his statewide run in May 2017, had raised $220,805 for his campaign as of Aug. 10, compared to the $1.2 million raised by Shaw for a campaign account and political committee. Torrens had given his campaign $13,737 through loans, cash, in-kind donations and a $2,287 check from his Torrens Law Group.
Both campaign totals include state matching-funds.
Individual donors, other than candidates, are limited to contributing $3,000 in statewide races.
Shaw’s attorney noted the $4,000 check in question came from a “multiple holder” account in which the parties control how much they put in.
When asked why he signed his wife’s name to the check, Torrens said he was “hurried” for time due to the campaign.
Shaw attorney Natalie Kato contended Torrens “acted with dishonest purpose” when he signed his wife’s name and then, after it was pointed out the donation exceeded the campaign spending limit for an individual, took a month to refund the money.
“Opposing counsel has stated multiple times that this is a case about a campaign finance violation. It is anything but,” Kato said. “It is about the story of what happened after a campaign finance violation and how those ill-gotten funds were used to allow this candidate for statewide office, for the highest legal office in the land, to illegally qualify for the ballot.”
Kato noted that in emails between Torrens and his campaign treasurer, he repeatedly referred to the account as “hers.”
Torrens attorney Jared McCabe countered that the lawsuit fails because no criminal intent occurred, as Torrens viewed the check as a loan and that when the contribution issue was discovered, he sought to remedy the matter with a refund.
“The plaintiff is harping on and is really trying to beat this dishonest purpose and bad faith,” McCabe said. “What they don’t want to talk about is that as a condition of precedent there has to be a campaign violation. And Mr. Torrens has to be convicted of it.”
Torrens said the delay in returning or refunding the check until mid-July was due to trying to determine if the contribution could be reclassified as a loan from himself.
Earlier this week, Torrens was rebuffed in his call for party unity by imploring Shaw to drop the lawsuit. Shaw did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.