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Mayoral candidate’s charter school donation questioned

By Staff | Aug 3, 2017

A couple hundred cups of coffee has raised an ethical dilemma for the Cape Coral Municipal Charter School System.

Cape Coral mayoral candidate Joe Coviello purchased the coffee for the school system’s annual Back to School Breakfast Thursday, at which a majority of staff attend. While he did not attend the breakfast due to a conflicting speaking engagement, his wife Diane did and passed out campaign literature to the school system’s teachers and faculty.

The propriety of the action was questioned by at least two members of the city-run system’s governing board.

“They do the breakfast every year, but for a candidate to donate is totally inappropriate,” said Jessica Cosden, a Cape Coral City Council member and the chair of the Charter School Authority.

Cosden did not attend the breakfast, but heard about it and confirmed it with another Charter board member, Sam Fisher. She said he “shut it down as soon as he saw it,” but that Diane Coviello had already passed out campaign information to those who had walked through the door for breakfast.

She’s concerned that the school system gave Coviello access to more than 400 staff members, what she says could be an unfair opportunity that the other six candidates will not have.

“I don’t know how that was allowed to happen,” Cosden said. “That (the breakfast donation) plus literature being distributed is concerning. It gives the wrong impression.”

The school system does not endorse candidates or get active in political campaigns, and Coviello’s coffee donation plus campaign literature distribution could send the message that the school authority supports him, critics said.

Coviello said there was no political motivation in a personal donation that did not come from his campaign account. When the question was raised, his wife immediately stopped handing out the literature, he said, adding that it did not contain any solicitation for political contributions.

The cards that were passed out were “rack cards” that included his bio but no financial invitation, he said.

“I do everything I can to support the schools and teachers,” Coviello said, adding he was invited to take part and did so for no other reason.

Jacquelin Collins, the school system interim superintendent, said it’s typical to have a business or individual either donate or purchase breakfast items for the annual staff meeting as part of community partnerships. Those companies are often then given an opportunity to promote themselves, such as handing out fliers. For example, Premier Auto makes a quarterly donation to the system, she said, and in return the company is allowed to put advertising on the system website.

But Coviello shouldn’t have been allowed to hand out campaign information, Collins said.

“That shouldn’t have happened. They really shouldn’t have been there in that format,” she said.

Typically there’s no formal approval process for the donations – businesses or individuals just donate food or drinks or write a check, she said. But this one should have been checked.

“We did not endorse that candidate,” Collins said. “We were just thinking great, someone donated the coffee.”

Collins has been serving as the interim since April, while also maintaining her position as principal of Oasis High School. She said being new to the position, she just didn’t know the donation could pose a problem. Collins said the candidate did not attend, and Diane Coviello did not make a speech during the breakfast on his behalf.

“We did not do that to endorse the candidate,” she said. “We can’t get involved in politics.”

Any potential ethical issues aside, it could have been completely legal for Coviello to pass out the campaign literature.

Rebecca van Deutekom, Cape Coral City Clerk, said she could not determine if the school buildings were considered public government buildings of the city, but said per Florida state statute, section 106.15, Coviello or his campaign team could distribute flyers within a public building provided the literature does not solicit contributions. Campaign literature asking for donations can be distributed on public property, but only outside of the public building, she said.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected.