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South Miami politics heat up over attack ads against mayor

What’s a South Florida election without monied interests, liberty with the truth and maybe even a little nudity?

Case in point: South Miami, population 12,000, where Mayor Philip Stoddard has accused utility giant Florida Power & Light of being behind campaign attack ads. Stoddard is running for reelection.

FPL says the mayor’s allegations are not true and that the utility is not involved in any way.

In the complicated world of campaign finance, it can be difficult to flush out who is behind the mud-slinging.

Stoddard has not been a friend to FPL. He has opposed the utility’s plans to string high-voltage power lines on 100-foot poles through the heart of South Miami. He has fought FPL’s push for new reactors at the Turkey Point nuclear plant. And, this year, the city’s franchise agreement with the company is up for negotiation.

The political advertising leading up to South Miami’s Feb. 11 elections has been plentiful. The mayor’s seat and those of two commissioners are up for grabs.

A recent telephone push poll asked residents: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for someone who had been reported to the Florida Child Abuse Hotline for being naked in front of two unrelated teenage females in their home?”

Sotddard said he’s never been contacted by the hotline. But the question refers to a 2011 incident where a burglar broke into Stoddard’s home one morning. A 17-year-old exchange student staying with the family screamed when she saw the intruder and Stoddard jumped out of bed to investigate. The police report was amended more than a year later to note that the mayor sleeps in the buff, and did not take time to get dressed when he ran out of his room (where his daughter had been sleeping on a futon).

“All these questions were slanted questions that were just nasty and targeted at me,” Stoddard said. “They were all taken out of context, especially this thing about these girls at my household. That’s just straight defamation.”

A disclosure at the end of the phone call notes that the poll was paid for by Progress for the People, a political group called an electioneering communications organization, or ECO.

“We are not involved with any political committees with this election,” said FPL spokesman Erik Hofmeyer. “We haven’t given any money for any ECOs and we are not supporting any candidates running for the election in South Miami.”

Miami-Dade County records show that Progress for the People ECO has raised $5,500, with most of it coming from an unlikely source: the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

County records show the speedway and FPL share attorney Jorge Luis Lopez as a lobbyist. And state records show that Lopez has been involved in yet another political organization — called a committee of continuous existence, or CCE — that received a $15,000 donation from FPL.

Lopez wrote in an email late Friday that he is not working with any candidates and is only interested in promoting diversity in the South Miami elections.

As for the FPL donation, the lobbyist said it was one donation of many. He also said that the CCE has not been involved in South Miami elections. In fact, it was closed in late 2013 because of a change in state law, he said.

The only explanation the lobbyist gave for FPL’s donation was to support “the legally permitted activities and mission of the committee … to recruit, train, support candidates and new leaders, and support committees, organizations, and parties.”

There is precedent for FPL getting involved in local elections, because state records show that the CCE gave at least $2,000 to candidates ahead of Homestead’s November election.

In the email, Lopez stressed that he has not represented FPL or any other of his firm’s clients before the city of South Miami.

“Jorge Luis Lopez has worked for us as a general consultant for many years,” FPL’s Hofmeyer said. “He is registered with the county. He mostly handles county issues. We have more than a million customer accounts in Miami-Dade County.”

There is another tie: the chairman of Progress for the People is Ernesto Martinez Jr., who has served on other political organizations with Lopez, including the one that got the FPL donation.

Martinez did not return a call for comment.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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