Court gives reprieve to attorney general candidate

Ryan Torrens
Ryan Torrens

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Democratic primary for attorney general is back on, at least for now, with the 1st District Court of Appeal issuing a temporary stay Monday that allows votes to be counted for candidate Ryan Torrens.

The stay by the Tallahassee-based appeals court was accompanied by an “expedited” review of a ruling Friday by Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers that ordered Torrens, an attorney from Hillsborough County, off the ballot for improperly writing a check that helped him cover the qualifying fee for the race.

State Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat running against Torrens in Tuesday’s primary, filed the lawsuit seeking to have Torrens decertified as a candidate. Gievers held a non-jury trial Wednesday before issuing the ruling Friday. The outcome of the case could be decided after Tuesday’s voting.

During a press conference Monday outside his law office in Tampa, Torrens expressed confidence in his chances at the polls, though Gievers’ ruling spread “a very negative view” of his campaign.

“Just by filing his last-minute lawsuit seeking to have me removed from the ballot, my opponent accomplished a negative-politics messaging goal that he could not have achieved by merely campaigning before voters as we have been doing the last 15 months,” Torrens said.

Torrens contends in the appeal that Shaw failed to follow steps required for such a complaint and that Gievers “exceeded” her authority, because a complaint over a campaign finance violation should have gone to the Florida Elections Commission rather than circuit court.

“By statute, the sole remedy available to any private individual alleging a campaign finance violation is to file a sworn complaint with the Florida Elections Commission to initiate an investigation,” Torrens’ appeal said. “Here, in a civil proceeding at the behest of a political rival, without conferring on Torrens the benefit of the procedural safeguards and higher burden of proof inherent in the requirement that removal from the ballot only occur if a candidate is convicted of a crime, the trial judge erroneously ordered a political candidate’s removal from the ballot in the middle of early voting and days before election day.”

Shaw argued that Torrens incorrectly signed his wife’s name to a check worth $4,000 from a “multiple holder” account in which each person controls how much they put in.

Individual donors, other than candidates, are limited to contributing $3,000 in statewide races, and the check put Torrens’ wife over the cap.

Torrens maintains the check came from a joint account and that candidates are allowed to loan unlimited amounts of money to their campaigns.

In the ruling, Gievers criticized Torrens for “selective memory” regarding the check and said he should be decertified as a candidate.

“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.”

Gievers 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.

More than 800,000 Democrats have already voted in the primary.