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Two Hernando County Candidates Could Face Sanctions, Possible Disqualification

HERNANDO – It's not the "October Surprise" but R News stumbled upon a technicality regarding the campaigns of two local candidates who could face disqualification due to filing the wrong form.

While reviewing candidate documents on the Hernandovotes.gov website, R News discovered that Sheriff Al Nienhuis filed a form DS-DE 9 (Appointment of Campaign Treasurer and Designations of Campaign Depository for Candidates), that is not the current state-approved revised version. The latest DS-DE 9 form revisions are dated 9/23 (September 2023) and 10/23 (October 2023) but Nienhuis submitted a DS-DE 9 dated 10/10 (October 2010), a version that is 14 years old. If Nienhuis had filed the form before September 2023, it would have been accepted, according to state statute, but he filed the document on November 1, 2023, after both new versions were available. It may seem like a simple oversight, but nothing is trivial when it comes to election laws.

Upon further investigation, R News discovered that Nienhuis not only submitted the expired form on November 1, 2023, when he designated accountant Shawn Woodruff as his treasurer, but he used the same expired form on November 20, 2023, when he removed Woodruff and designated himself as treasurer.

According to Florida Statute, a candidate could face possible disqualification if the proper forms are not submitted to the Supervisor of Elections office by 12:00 p.m. on June 14th. That deadline has come and gone and the DS-DE 9 Nienhuis filed still appears to be out of date, according to Hernandovotes.org.

If Nienhuis is ruled non-compliant, some if not all the blame may fall on Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson. According to statute, Anderson is required to review all campaign documents immediately upon their submission to ensure they are accurately filled out and are the correct revised versions. The statute states that a Supervisor of Elections must notify a candidate immediately if errors are discovered so that the candidate can correct them before the qualification deadline. Every 't' must be crossed and every 'i' dotted when it comes to Florida's election laws.

The 2024 State Qualifying Handbook reads: Do not use older versions of the forms as this may delay qualifying or prevent a person from qualifying.

Florida Statute 105.031-5(b) reads: If the filing officer receives qualifying papers that do not include all the items as required by paragraph (a) prior to the last day of qualifying (June 14, 2024), the filing officer (Shirley Anderson) shall make a reasonable effort to notify the candidate of the missing or incomplete items and shall inform the candidate that all required items must be received by the close of qualifying.

In reviewing other Hernando County candidates' DS-DE 9s, it appears that all incumbent Board of County Commissioner candidates filed the same 10/10 revision as Nienhuis, but their filings took place before new revisions were available.

District 2 School Board candidate Kayce Hawkins secured the seat after her opponent Jennifer Sullivan failed to qualify. The only problem is that Hawkins used the same outdated 10/10 form when she filed on September 6, 2023, after a new revision was available. Hawkins' husband, Brian Hawkins is a current County Commissioner who is not up for reelection this cycle.

Before deciding not to run for another term as Supervisor of Elections, Anderson submitted the correct 10/23 DS-DE 9 on January 2, 2024, as did her successor and only other candidate Denise LaVancher, who filed on April 1, 2024.

We reached out to Kayce Hawkins, Shirley Anderson, and Sheriff Nienhuis but the only one to respond to our inquiry was Nienhuis who stated, "We have done a bit of research and found that all candidates in Hernando County, as well as several in a few of the surrounding counties, did not update their form for qualification during the week of June 10-14, 2024. Ironically, even the 10/23 version is incorrect. The "most correct" form, according to the Supervisor of Elections, appears to be the Rev. 9/23 of DS DE 9 form." Nienhuis goes on to say, "In an abundance of caution, I will be filing a 9/23 version of the form later today or tomorrow."

We contacted the Department of State and Division of Elections, but we have yet to receive a call back from a representative.

Nienhuis' opponent Joe Puglia opted to reserve his comment on the issue until officials determine if Hawkins and Nienhuis will face sanctions.

If the DS-DE 9 issue proves to have errors beyond the revision date, the implications could be widespread and may raise questions about past campaigns and Florida's election integrity.

R News will bring more on this story as it develops.

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