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Sunday, September 19, 2021

UF student turned State House candidate to pay back campaign for purchases

A UF student who ran as a Democrat for a Florida House seat used his campaign funds to pay for questionable items such as haircuts, Chipotle meals and nearly $500 of Lyft charges.

After his staff questioned the purchases, he said he’ll pay them back.

“I accept fault where I made errors in judgment,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

Amol Jethwani, a 21-year-old UF political science senior, charged expenditures to his campaign that some of his staff felt was unreasonable during the race, which started in January. Line items also included lunches at Flaco’s and Pita Pit, as well as larger ticket items like a $81 bill at a Zara clothing store in Miami and an $84 bar tab at a South Florida hotel.

Jethwani lost Tuesday night against Jason Lee Haeseler for the Florida House of Representatives District 21 seat. The district encompasses western Alachua, including part of Gainesville, and all of Gilchrist and Dixie counties.

Jethwani used campaign donations to pay for four haircuts in five months and visit two cigar bars, according to a public expenditure report.

He used Lyft about 45 times, sometimes requesting multiple rides a day. He often used the campaign funds to buy gas.

In April, he paid $100 to Superior Towing. When asked about the towing charge by an Alligator reporter over the phone, Jethwani hung up and did not respond to further requests for comment.

Jethwani also withdrew cash for spending money five times. Three expenditures were more than $100, including two for $150 and one for $350. Petty cash funds must be spent under $100 per Florida Elections Commission rules.

If anyone filed a complaint against Jethwani, it would be investigated by the Florida Elections Commission, said Amy Toman, the executive director. Toman could not confirm there were any complaints, but no records listed him, she said.

In a written statement, Jethwani said the frequent expenditures were due to “an unprecedented level of transparency.”

At the viewing party for the campaign results, Jethwani told The Alligator that he will pay back his campaign starting this week.

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Jethwani also resigned from his role as the UF College Democrats president, which he was elected to in Spring, according to a Facebook post made by the student organization. Monday’s announcement came hours before the first general body meeting Jethwani would have ran.

People commented on the post, questioning the decision, and the organization responded, telling followers they had reviewed public campaign finance records, event schedules and contributions before interviewing Jethwani.

“We asked him to explain the situation at our executive board meeting,” the UF College Democrats Facebook wrote. “All of these things together fueled our decision to ask for his resignation, with which he complied with.”

Jethwani said he “wanted to protect UF College Democrats from any press blowback or bad image,” but that he would have also resigned had he won the state representative seat.

A day before the primaries, Jethwani said there were changes to his campaign staff, including the departure of his campaign manager, Bennett Ragan.

“We asked him to step off the race,” Jethwani said. “We just needed change in vision and leadership as far as the day-to-day.”

Bennett said he wasn't asked to leave but chose to after finding out about the finances.

While Jethwani said staff members were let go, screenshots sent to The Alligator of the campaign’s GroupMe show members leaving the chat after a Florida Politics reporter writing a story about some of the expenditures contacted the campaign. Other former staffers confirmed that they left after they found out about the expenses.

Gaby Connor, 24, said she worked for Jethwani’s campaign as a social media manager last school year before she graduated from UF in public relations in August.

Connor’s Facebook friends have quietly removed remnants of their campaign associations from their social media pages, including taking off their position titles and profile photo stickers, she said.

“People are stepping off but not talking about it,” Connor said.

Staff Writer Amanda Rosa contributed to this report.

Contact Meryl Kornfield at mkornfield@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter at @MerylKornfield

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