Berny Jacques will serve on the Judicial Nominating Commission in Pinellas County through 2024. But in the meantime, is he using the position to raise money for his state House run?
A review of contributions shows many of individuals who gave to the Seminole Republican’s campaign in House District 59 were later recommended for spots on the bench. In one case, a contribution was made within hours of the donor being recommended for a circuit court judgeship.
Jacques denies any relationship between campaign contributions and Commission attention.
“That has no bearing on the decision,” Jacques said. “The decision is made collectively by a number of Commissioners, and a donation to a campaign would never influence my decision.”
But he acknowledged many of the members of the legal community who ultimately receive recommendations by the Commission have been longtime friends and occasionally past supporters of his political ambitions.
The most notable confluence of events came in December. Jeffrey Albinson donated $50 to Jacques’ House campaign on Dec. 1. The following day, the 6th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission sent a list of six names to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Office to choose from to fill retiring Circuit Judge Linda Allan’s spot on the bench.
Ultimately, the job went to Pinellas County Judge Brian Gnage. But Albinson later appeared on a list of nominees to replace Gnage on the county court.
But the proximity of the donation and nomination even caught Jacques by alarm. The candidate, after being informed of the closeness of events, said he looked up records with the campaign and found Albinson’s donation was sent electronically at 8:21 p.m. in the evening. That was actually hours after the JNC met and voted on names around 5 p.m., though the list did not publish until the following day.
Jacques said if a donation had come while the Commission was still deliberating, he would have sent the check back. Because it arrived later, he never questioned the donation.
But that’s not the only time contributions preceded nominations. Philip Piazza gave $1,000 to Jacques: $500 on May 1, 2021 and another $500 on March 1 this year. The second donation was reported the same day Piazza’s name appeared on a list of nominees to replace Gnage on the Pinellas County Court, alongside Albinson.
Another person nominated for that job, Nicole Pearlman, donated $500 to Jacques in June after her name appeared on the list, but her husband, Lee Pearlman, donated $1,000 last year.
Samantha Sealy also donated money to Jacques on May 1, 2021, just $25. She ended up nominated three months later.
Jacques, for his part, said he’s been friends with Sealy for years, and he does accept donations from longtime friends and professional associates. But when the Judicial Nomination Commission is called into session, he does not solicit donations nor will he accept them if they come in during the time when the Commission is considering and interviewing candidates.
He could only recall one instance of that happening, and his treasurer voided a check so it was never even reported.
“Even with personal friends, I would not accept a donation during a session,” he said.
Jaques is running for an open seat and faces Dipak Nadkarni and Jennifer Wilson in the Republican Primary. Democrat Dawn Douglas is also running.