Democrat Attorney General candidate appeals ballot removal

UPDATE: 

Democrat Ryan Torrens said Saturday he is appealing a Leon County circuit judge’s ruling that blocked his candidacy for Florida attorney general. Torrens, a Hillsborough County attorney, said in a news release that he filed a notice of appeal with the 1st District Court of Appeal after the ruling Friday by Circuit Judge Karen Gievers.

ORIGINAL STORY:

A Democratic candidate for attorney general was tossed from the ballot Friday, as a Leon County circuit judge strongly rejected his claims about a $4,000 check he wrote in his wife’s name to help cover the election qualifying fee.

Judge Karen Gievers ruled Ryan Torrens, an attorney from Hillsborough County, “has proven himself not to be properly qualified” as she criticized him for a “selective memory” when he was questioned about the check during a non-jury trial Wednesday.

“As an attorney for some seven years, as a candidate for public office, as an applicant for public financing to help with his campaign, and as a candidate to serve as the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the state, Mr. Torrens is charged with knowledge of the law,” Gievers wrote. “Mr. Torrens clearly acted contrary to the law, knowingly.”

Torrens, who has said an appeal would be likely, did not immediately respond to a request for comment after Gievers issued her order late Friday.

Pending an appeal, state Rep. Sean Shaw, who filed the lawsuit, would become the Democratic nominee for attorney general and await the winner of the Republican primary Tuesday between Rep. Frank White of Pensacola and former Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ashley Moody.

In a statement, Shaw called the ruling a “validation” of his desire to “be a fighter” for Floridians as attorney general.

“It is now time for Democrats to unite to take back Florida this fall,” Shaw, of Tampa, said in the statement. “We currently have two candidates in the Republican attorney general primary, fighting over who can stand closer to President Trump, when it seems those closest to him are being shown to be corrupt and criminal.”

Shaw previously equated the lawsuit with his goal, if elected, to be one of the “most active attorney generals in this country.”

“If I don’t hold my primary opponent accountable, what does it mean when I’m telling people that I’m going to hold the Legislature accountable?” Shaw said while in Tallahassee earlier this month. “When I’m going to go after anyone doing wrong in the state, that’s what it looks like. This is what proactive attorney general action’s look like.”

Shaw did not attend the trial on Wednesday.

But Torrens took the stand to defend the check he wrote on an account that is in his wife’s name but which he described as a joint account. Torrens signed her name on the check.

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.”

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 each party controls 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.”

Torrens attorney Jared McCabe countered that the lawsuit should be dismissed 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.

Gievers sided with Shaw.

“Mr. Torrens could have done things correctly,” Gievers wrote. “He clearly and convincingly chose not to, and he must be deemed removed from the ballot.”

In her order, Gievers dismissed Torrens’ motion to dismiss the complaint as not legally sound and Torrens’ counterclaim of libel, which was based on the allegation in the lawsuit.

She also directed Secretary of State Ken Detzner to notify all 67 county supervisors of election of the decertification of Torrens, who has been campaigning for attorney general since May 2017.

While mentioning the matching funds, Gievers didn’t give any direction regarding the $88,693.60 Torrens has received in public financing from the state.

Jim Turner is a Capitol reporter for the News Service of Florida, providing coverage on issues ranging from transportation and the environment to Legislative and Cabinet politics, which are some of the areas he worked in 20 years with TCPalm in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. Jim grew up in Millburn, New Jersey, where he started his journalism career providing weekly reports on the high school soccer team --- of which he was a member--- to the local Millburn Item. Jim received degrees in journalism and history from High Point University in North Carolina.