Three allied candidates who generated thousands of votes by mail in the August Democratic primary had something else in common: unusually high payments for campaign signs to an obscure company run by one of their friends.
Campaign insiders wonder why any candidate would spend so much money on yard signs — considered a necessary but ineffective part of any campaign.
County Commissioner Mack Bernard, state Rep. Al Jacquet and state Sen. Bobby Powell paid about $68,000 combined for signs to Sky Administrations, run by Darren Romelus of Boynton Beach. He’s married to Boynton Beach City Commissioner Christina Romelus.
Both Jacquet and Powell spent more than $27,000 each on signs in 2016 — more than anyone else running in August, including Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who ran countywide.
If the money went for anything other than signs, the candidates were required to report it.
During the race, the three candidates, all Democrats, had help from the Romeluses, who like Bernard and Jacquet, are Haitian-American.
At least one voter spotted Christina Romelus going door to door helping voters fill out their ballots and then picking up absentee ballots. That’s allowed if it’s done by a candidate or a volunteer, but paid workers are forbidden under state law from handling more than two ballots that aren’t their own.
The question would be whether payments to her husband rise to the level of benefitting her and therefore make her ineligible to collect ballots. She was a company officer of Sky for three years until after her election to the Boynton Beach Commission in March.
“That would make a very very good court case,” said former Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan, a Miami attorney. “If she was getting money directly, there’s no question that would be improper, but not knowing the relationship is difficult.”
Another voter said Darren Romelus came to her door handing out campaign fliers. Bernard paid Sky $2,782 for campaign supplies, shirts and fliers.
‘Unheard of’ sign spending
To win their seats in August, Bernard and Jacquet went door to door through Haitian-American neighborhoods in their district, stepping into people’s homes and helping them fill out their vote-by-mail ballots, a Palm Beach Post investigation found. Their tactics helped them generate incredible turnout in votes by mail.
Romelus’ wife received similarly high support among mail-in voters to win her city commission seat just six months earlier.
When allegations of vote-by-mail irregularities arose during the Aug. 30 campaign, Christina Romelus said such complaints were an effort to “stifle” Haitian-Americans.
“We’re simply bringing to life a community that for the most part has been ignored,” she said of herself, Jacquet and Bernard.
For a campaign to spend so much on signs baffles competing candidates, sign business owners and campaign consultants.
The amounts are “unheard of, unless it’s a statewide campaign,” said Carlos Sarti, owner of Dotfront Printing in Fort Lauderdale.
“I don’t see how it was possible for those three campaigns to spend $68,000 on campaign signs,” said campaign consultant Richard Giorgio, who ran incumbent Priscilla Taylor’s losing campaign against Bernard. Taylor spent a little more than a third of what Bernard spent.
“Truthfully, Al (Jacquet) didn’t really have that many signs out there,” Giorgio said.
Darren and Christina Romelus refused to answer written questions from The Palm Beach Post. Bernard, Jacquet and Powell would not discuss their sign expenditures.
10,000 signs each?
On average, a sign can cost between $2 and $5, vendors told The Post. That number can depend on how fancy the sign, or how large the order.
Jacquet’s payments for signs amounted to $4.35 per vote he received, nearly 19 times what Bradshaw spent on signs for the votes he received.
Store representatives said spending the amounts that Powell and Jacquet did could get them about 10,000 signs each. While their signs still sprinkle neighborhoods, few observers believe their numbers came anywhere near 10,000.
For the county commission race, Bernard spent $14,557 with Sky on signs, enough to buy nearly 6,000 signs. His chief opponent, Taylor, spent $10,745 on signs. A third candidate, Lawrence Gordon, spent $4,096. Taylor and Gordon did not use Sky.
If the money is going to something else or disappearing down a rabbit hole, voters and campaign supporters should care, said Nova Southeastern University Law Professor Robert Jarvis.
“One of the things that you always want to know about a candidate’s campaign, not only did you comply with all the election laws, but did you run a financially prudent campaign? Because if you didn’t run a financially prudent campaign, you probably are not, if you are elected, going to be financially prudent,” Jarvis said.
Morel said they persuaded him to drop his run in Powell’s district and run instead against state Sen. Jeff Clemens. While Morel, too, scored a high percentage of his vote from mail-in ballots, his would-be benefactors backed Clemens and Morel lost.
Clemens himself spent $5,079 on signs from Sky Administration.
The company never before earned so much money in a Palm Beach County or statewide race, records show.
Sky, which opened four years ago in the Romelus home, according to state records, came under scrutiny in August, when The Post reported that the business never obtained a proper city license. Within a week, Sky complied.
Now, Romelus has another source of income, beyond his campaign business, which has grown to include the current campaign of Boynton Beach Commissioner Mack McCray. He’s on the government payroll.
Bernard hired him to be his county commission aide, a post that pays $39,000 a year.
Staff writers Lawrence Mower, Lulu Ramadan and Justin Price and staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.
Boynton Beach City Commissioner Christina Romelus
Background: born in Haiti; adjunct instructor at Palm Beach State College’s Lake Worth campus
March 2016: Elected to Boynton Beach City Commission.
Background: born in Florida; husband of Boynton Beach City Commissioner Christina Romelus; aide to County Commissioner Mack Bernard; owns and operates Sky Administrations, which did campaign work for Mack Bernard, Al Jacquet and Bobby Powell in 2016. Until her election in March 2016, Christina Romelus served as an officer of the company; no elected office.