Pasco sheriff’s campaign paid $15,000 to top Sheriff’s Office staffer

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco paid nearly $15,000 in campaign funds last year to a firm run by one of his subordinates.

The employee, Chase Daniels, oversees community relations, social media and lobbying for the Sheriff’s Office. He also recently filed paperwork to start a separate company with Nocco’s wife, a political fundraiser, corporate records show.

The $15,000 was about a third of what Nocco, the incumbent, raised for the race. He ran unopposed.

The sheriff’s campaign finances have come under scrutiny before. He recently faced allegations in a federal lawsuit that he required his top lieutenants and their spouses to make $1,000 contributions to a previous campaign when he wasn’t facing a challenger.

In 2020, Nocco raised $45,448 for his reelection bid. At least $27,000 of that total was in $1,000 contributions from members of his command staff and their partners, campaign finance records show.

Daniels, in his role as Sheriff’s Office spokesman, told the Tampa Bay Times last year the contributions were not mandatory.

Nocco declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement saying his campaign “follows all applicable state and local laws and there were no concerns regarding this business arrangement” with Daniels.

Daniels, 32, said he did all campaign work through his personal business. He said the Sheriff’s Office had approved his outside employment and that he performed all tasks outside of official business hours. He did not take a leave of absence, he said.

Daniels described his firm, Daniels Squared, as a digital advertising business. He said he designs and manages social media pages and ads for political candidates for a consulting fee of about $500.

He added that about $14,000 of the money he received from the sheriff’s campaign was a reimbursement for the social media ads he purchased. Daniels declined to release the receipts, saying they were the campaign’s proprietary information. He provided a sample receipt from one month of Facebook ads for $320.34.

He said he followed all state laws and local ordinances and did not believe the work raised any ethical concerns.

Peter Cruise, who runs the LeRoy Collins Public Ethics Academy at Florida Atlantic University, described the contributions and expenditures as “related-party transactions that should raise eyebrows a mile high.”

“This is certainly worth an investigation by the state ethics commission or, because he’s the sheriff, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement,” he said.

A review of records shows Nocco wasn’t the only Pasco County candidate whose campaign paid Daniels’ firm.

Incumbent County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who was recently reelected to a third term, paid the company $5,200 in campaign funds for social media consulting.

Gary Bradford, a retired police officer who ran unsuccessfully for the commission’s District 4 seat, paid $19,050 in campaign funds for what he described as digital campaigning.

Experts told the Times that those transactions were also concerning because the County Commission approves the Sheriff’s Office’s budget.

“If there is a relationship between a senior staff member and a county commissioner who has to vote on the budget, there might be an incentive not to ever challenge the sheriff’s budget request,” Cruise said.

In a text message to a reporter, Starkey said she was “unaware of any state campaign financing law that would prohibit my campaign manager from hiring a private company whose principal also happens to be employed by the sheriff.”

She added: “It certainly would not influence my vote on the sheriff’s budget.”

Times report in December described how Nocco, who has worked in politics and has deep ties to the Republican Party, has used his connections and clout to expand the Sheriff’s Office beyond its traditional reach.

That has included building a sprawling intelligence arm that uses an algorithm to determine which residents might break the law and deploys deputies to monitor and harass them.

The Sheriff’s Office has denied harassing citizens and said it stands by the program.

Daniels joined the Sheriff’s Office as policy director in 2015. Before that, he worked on campaigns and was an assistant to state lawmakers.

His current title is executive director of the Office of the Sheriff. His salary is $116,275, records show.

In his statement, Nocco said he “entered into this agreement with Daniels Squared, LLC based on the unique work he could perform, which other companies could not offer, and the value provided to my campaign by being able, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, to reach the citizens of Pasco County.”

Daniels said he plans to shift the work he was doing under Daniels Squared to Advanced Digital Results, the company he launched in January with Nocco’s wife, Bridget. Daniels said he has known Bridget Nocco longer than he’s known the sheriff and hopes her political expertise can help grow the firm.

Bridget Nocco did not return emails seeking comment.

Said Chris Nocco: “As I have stated before, I am proud of my wife and the career she has built on her own.”

Former Federal Election Commission general counsel Larry Noble said campaigns often do business with people who are close to the candidate — and that doesn’t mean they are doing anything illegal or unethical.

But he said it does raise questions about how the money is being used and whether the candidate is paying fair-market value.

“I do think the idea that he’s hired someone who is working for him, by its very nature, is not an arms-length business transaction,” Noble said. “And then when that person works with his spouse, there are potential issues.”

[This story was originally published by the Tampa Bay Times.]

Did you like this story? Your support means a lot! Your tax-deductible donation will advance our mission of supporting journalism as a catalyst for change.