One of Mayor Lenny Curry’s political committees squandered about $120,000 last year by falling victim to an elaborate phone scam that police detectives traced back to Nigeria, according to reports from a Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office investigation that included help from the U.S. Secret Service.
In May 2017, Eric Robinson — a Sarasota County School Board member and an accountant well known for representing Florida Republican political committees, including Curry’s — wired $119,797 from one of Curry’s main political committees, Build Something that Lasts, to four different addresses ranging from Wyoming and Ohio to Missouri. Robinson believed he was doing so at the request of a fundraiser who works for Curry. The payments were purportedly for catering and consulting services, paid to people with no known connection to Curry or anyone who runs his political operation.
It turns out, investigators found, a phone scammer duped Robinson into believing he was Curry’s fundraiser, Kevin Hofmann of Tallahassee. Robinson didn’t realize the ruse until the real Hofmann called Robinson while he was on the phone with the impersonator. The scammer told Robinson to send money to places that all appear to be residential addresses.
“Robinson had a hard time in distinguishing who was the real Kevin Hofmann,” police wrote. “Robinson does not have caller ID to identify phone numbers.”
Detectives found that “just prior to any fraudulent activity taking place,” Hofmann’s computer was accessed by an IP address that originated in Nigeria, and that the phone number used to call Robinson by the imposter originated out of Luxembourg. Investigators did not pursue any leads there because they have no jurisdiction.
Investigators have not developed any suspects in the case.
Robinson said some of the transfers were stopped, or that police were able to recover some of the money. Otherwise, he said his firm reimbursed Build Something that Lasts — he estimated it was about $90,000 — by donating to other political committees he controls and transferring the money into Curry’s committee. On the phone, Robinson couldn’t recall the names of the committees he used. The latest financial disclosure for Build Something that Lasts shows $90,000 in donations from Making a Better Tomorrow, which Robinson represents, in the months after the fraud scheme.
“My firm [ensured] that no donor money was lost and that we made the PC whole,” he said.
“As soon as we were made aware of the fraud committed against the accounting firm that handles the (political committee) we notified authorities who launched an investigation that revealed a complex scheme to defraud the PC, including hacking the email of the fundraiser for the committee,” Tim Baker, Curry’s political consultant, said in a written statement.
″ … no donor money was lost,” Baker said.
Robinson made the criminal complaint May 2017, but the details of the investigation never became public. Curry and Baker are named in the reports as victims of the scam, and Baker was interviewed by detectives in Gainesville in June 2017.
But Build Something that Lasts expense reports still show the five different payments for catering and consulting services. The Times-Union was alerted about the existence of the investigation by Jon Susce, an independent journalist in Sarasota. The Sarasota Sheriff’s Office provided the incident reports Monday.
Robinson is still listed as the chairman, treasurer and registered agent for Build Something that Lasts.
“We have strengthened the internal controls of our firm and increased the level of training specifically in this area for our employees,” Robinson said.
Robinson, a certified public accountant, has been the name behind dozens of political committees in Florida, but often has expressed ignorance about how or why the groups he oversees spend money. Florida’s Wild West campaign finance laws allow political committees to raise and spend money with a remarkable degree of latitude.
“I don’t speak for the committee,” Robinson said in a 2016 interview. “I just do the accounting.”
Detectives apparently had a hard time tracking what ultimately happened to the money. One address where Robinson sent thousands of dollars traced back to a Wyoming resident. That resident told investigators a man named David Mark, who he met and developed a relationship with on the internet, told him to expect wire transfers of $19,115 and $19,872 and to mail the money to an address in Converse, Texas.
The Wyoming resident said he had spoken to David Mark on the phone several times and that the man “had an accent but could not determine from where.”
Build Something that Lasts is one of several committees Curry set up to bolster his political ambitions. Curry is the first Jacksonville mayor to have had an active political committee after his election. He has raised about $1.7 million for Build Something that Lasts since taking office in 2015, and spent about $1.6 million.
By Nate Monroe