The New Watchdogs of Pinellas County Dodge A Controversy
When people supported Chris Latvala and Brian Scott for Pinellas County (FL) Commission, we knew we were in for a new era in the county that formerly had the word "progressive" in it's charter. Latvala and Scott would join conservative Kathleen Peters and GOP faithful David Eggers on the county governance board, providing a Republican majority on the Pinellas County Commission for the first time in well over a decade.
We knew we were poised to sit back, get some popcorn, and see what would happen with a new group of Watchdogs on the Pinellas County Commission, and we didn't have to wait long.
The previous, Democrat dominated commission was known for playing fast and loose with taxpayer money. As the new commission took their seats in early 2023, they started looking at some of the funding initiatives that had already been approved before they took office by the lame duck commission. Every decision was on the table, and every past action subject to scrutiny of the new leadership.
On Tuesday, February 14, 2023, the commission made the first of several reversals that would come to now hallmark their freshman class. Rewind to November 2022, and the previous lame duck commission approved a bunch of last second expenditures. One of them was funds that they earmarked for the African People’s Education and Defense Fund, an Uhuru-affiliated nonprofit. The fund’s application said the money would be spent on radio equipment and computers for WBPU 96.3 FM, also known as Black Power 96.
"Uhuru" is a Swahili word that means "freedom" or "independence". It is often used in the context of the struggle for freedom and independence in African countries, particularly during the era of decolonization in the mid-20th century. Uhuru is also a term used by various political organizations and movements in Africa to advocate for the rights of marginalized and oppressed people, and to call for an end to colonialism, imperialism, and other forms of oppression.
So the last commission was going to gift taxpayer money to a Uhuru-affiliated radio station. The station broadcasts from the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave. S in St. Petersburg. The house was raided by federal agents in July amid the Uhuru Movement’s alleged connections to a Russian national accused of working with U.S. groups to spread pro-Russia propaganda and interfere with elections.
Prophetically, new commissioner Chris Latvala forced the funds allocation into the limelight. “I think even ignoring the FBI investigation — they have not been found guilty — you can take into account everything else they’ve done, and there are numerous reasons they should not ever receive funding from this board,” Latvala said.
Now, two months after Latvala forced a vote that defunded the earmarked funds for the Uhuru radio station, members of the group have been formally charged with working with Russian government officials.
Penny Joanne Hess and Jesse Nevel are named in an indictment along with Omali Yeshitela, the leader of the American-based socialist and African internationalist movement founded in 1972. Federal investigators accuse Nevel, Yeshitela and Hess of working with and taking money from Aleksander Ionov. He's the founder of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia that’s headquartered in Moscow and is funded by the Russian government.
Yeshitela, Nevel and Hess said they’re innocent and that the charges are a coordinated attack on their freedom of speech.
While the commission's official reason for revoking the funding was that they didn't feel it was proper to award radio broadcasting gear among other genuine community needs for the limited funding, the timing of the reversal shows foresight from the new commission. Had the commission not revoked the funding, taxpayer money would be flowing now to an organization that has affiliated members under federal indictment. It is worthwhile to point out the obvious, allegations are presumed innocent in America until and unless proven otherwise, and none of the Uhuru people named in the indictments have been convicted of anything at this time.
Ken Welch, he mayor of St. Petersburg FL,released an appropriately cautious statement on the indictments, reading :
"The federal allegations about potential Russian interference are troubling. It is important to underscore that the City of St. Petersburg does not support, condone or tolerate any foreign government engaging in activities to undermine or influence our elections. The investigation is in the purview of our federal law enforcement agencies, and we will be monitoring the process going forward."
The indictment accuses the three Uhuru members of spreading pro-Russian propaganda and influencing local elections. Which local candidates did the Uhuru support? This isn't the end of the story, it's only the beginning.
Subscribe to Tidings Media and we will follow the charges as they develop.
The trial is set for July.