In an exclusive interview with The Florida Independent, a former campaign staffer for congressional candidate Mike Yost say that the Jacksonville-based Republican squandered campaign funds on personal expenses, refused to listen to his campaign managers and still owes ex-staffers large sums of money.
Yost is currently attempting to unseat Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, in Florida’s third Congressional district, after losing to the long-time incumbent in 2010.
But Yost’s former campaign manager, Nicholas Zoller, says the would-be congressman is a study in hypocrisy, and unfit to govern. “In private, his positions on political issues are far different from those he later espouses in public forums,” Zoller writes in an email to the Florida Independent, referencing Yost’s stance on “Fair Districts” Amendment 6.
Sixty-three percent of Florida voters voted for Amendment 6, one of two amendments created to help end the practice of gerrymandering — drawing district lines to benefit incumbents. Brown’s congressional district is often referred to as one of the most blatant examples of the practice.
Many Republicans opposed the Fair District amendments, and the Republican Party of Florida spent lavishly in 2010 to defeat the ballot measures. But Yost is one of the few Republicans who would likely benefit from redrawn district lines. His opponent has held office for more than 17 years — a fact many say is due to her awkwardly drawn district, which stretches for more than 100 miles and includes portions of Jacksonville, Gainesville and Orlando.
In an email sent out to supporters in December 2011, Yost wrote that he would continue to fight against the state Legislature’s proposals for how to redraw congressional districts, saying lawmakers have “let us down” by keeping Brown’s district mostly unchanged.
Earlier that month, Yost testified to the Senate reapportionment committee against its first map proposals. According to his email, Yost has dissected the Legislature’s maps thoroughly. “In spite of what we felt would happen in doing the RIGHT THING, neither the House or Senate were willing to redraw Corrine Brown’s District into one that We the People asked for,” he wrote.
According to Zoller, Yost’s stance on Fair Districts today is drastically different from when he first began his campaign.
“When his senior staff recommended he align with groups such as the NAACP and support the amendments in October 2010 to have an opportunity for some cross-over support, he stated ‘I will not support them, I do not support them and I am the candidate which means I’m the boss so I am over ruling you on this one, Nick,’” Zoller writes.
“He [initially] opposed the fair district amendments, wanted the campaign to oppose them and supported the GOP’s opposition of 5 and 6,” writes Zoller. “Today he supports them, wishes the legislature would use every word in the amendments to make a favorable district for him to run in, and is threatening legal action if they don’t make one that he likes.”
Lesley McKinney, an attorney and spokesperson for Yost, says he isn’t being hypocritical, just trying to uphold the law.
“There are many nuances in the law and you can possibly disagree with the nuance while agreeing with the overall law,” she says. “This is especially evident in the Fair Districts amendment. Groups that are normally allies are now on opposite sides of the debate. The fact remains that it is now the law and it must be adhered to.”
Zoller also finds fault with Yost’s claims that he is a “small government fiscal conservative.” According to Zoller, Yost used campaign funds for personal expenses, and still owes at least two former staffers for their work on the 2010 campaign.
“He claims to be a ‘small government fiscal conservative’, yet he squanders campaign funds on cigarettes if you look at his FEC filings he has made MANY $8 purchases at gas stations,” writes Zoller. “Not many people buy $8 in gas every time.”
Yost’s campaign filings do show several purchases made at gas stations, but it is difficult to tell specifically what was purchased. In total, Yost took in just $157,000 last year.
Zoller says he first became involved in the Yost campign in May 2010, when he was contacted by the campaign’s then-manager, Diane Leone. According to Zoller, he and a partner were flown down to Florida, where they “coordinated meetings between Mr. Yost and Rick Scott, Pam Bondi, George LeMieux, Adam Putnam and others influential in the FL GOP to attempt to consolidate the party around Mr. Yost’s nomination for congress.”
“Following these meetings, in early July 2010, Diane Leone became suspicious of questionable account activity,” writes Zoller. “Her first thought was to come to me and ask what the legality (Pursuant to FEC rules) was in regards to the expenditures. I informed her that she was correct that it was a violation of campaign finance law for Mr. Yost to use campaign funds for personal expenses (in this case predominantly cigarettes.).”
At the time, Zoller was working as a consultant on the campaign, but he was hired to serve as the general election campaign manager two days after Leone left. Zoller says that Yost told him he had fired Leone for being “incompetent.”
“That is what I was told,” writes Zoller. “She very well may have resigned because of the confrontation.”
In a statement made to the Independent, Leone backs up Zoller’s claims, but says she resigned from the campaign after not being paid:
Mr. Yost signed a contract to pay me to run his campaign as Campaign Manager. I was never paid for the seven months I ran his campaign. Based on that, I resigned as Campaign Manager in a letter to Mr. Yost.
“I won’t get into the reasons that Diane is no longer with the campaign, but I can tell you that any allegations of misuse of campaign funds for personal expenses are completely unsubstantiated,” says McKinney, Yost’s spokesperson, who adds that the campaign is involved with a “current issue regarding Zoller and his access to campaign funds.”
Though he describes himself as a “life-long Republican,” Zoller says he would not vote for the man for whom he once worked.
“In my opinion he is a study in hypocrisy,” writes Zoller. “He is a liar and completely unfit to serve in the House of Representatives. I’m as Republican as it gets, but if I lived in CD-3 and my choice was another Corrine Brown term or a member of Congress who defrauds his supporters, and staffers (many of whom he still owes money from 2010) I would vote for Corrine Brown.”
That’s not how McKinney sees it. ”I assure you that Mike Yost has done nothing but activities that are completely above board,” she says.