Two months ago it was stated in this space that the heated Oct. 25 meeting of the Board of County Commissioners was a sad display for local government.
Read through the investigative file pertaining to the alleged extortion by a local political action committee, the fuel for that Oct. 25 heated discussion, and the Oct. 25 meeting becomes even sadder.
During that meeting the public learned for the first time of a State Attorney investigation into allegations of extortion against Citizens Improving Gulf County.
Not from a commissioner or the county sheriff, but from a public citizen who talked of speaking with investigators on “three or four” occasions and pointedly questioned why several others in the community had failed to speak to investigators when asked.
Of those names mentioned at the podium by Christine McElroy only that of PAC president Jim Garth is mentioned by investigators in the file.
Apparently, even though investigators documented interviews with BOCC chair Bill Williams and county administrator Don Butler, no other document in that file indicates that investigators talked to anyone beyond themselves.
No written reports, no recordings, no notations; nothing.
How does a private citizen have information about an investigation that does not appear in the official file?
Yet this presentation, having nothing to do with county business, fueled 20 minutes of badgering and allegations from the podium by county commissioners, with Williams pronouncing he had worn a wire and using the term “blackmail” at least five times.
That transcribed and recorded conversation, by the by, should be a required civics lesson. It is a cynical, profane and calculating conversation about government from an experienced politician.
It is eye-opening.
It also includes the only reference to McElroy, and not in the most positive light.
Nonetheless, the major component of that file is a transcription and CD of a recorded conversation between Williams and St. Joe Beach resident Tom Graney, a political adviser and personal friend.
Investigators’ later interview with Graney is not even noted in the file made public.
Most astounding about that Oct. 25 meeting is that the taped conversation occurred four months earlier, nearly to the day, of that BOCC meeting.
That recorded conversation was the climax to a rapid series of conversations and affidavits – so rapid that Williams bent time, documenting for investigators by affidavit a phone conversation with Graney that sparked the brouhaha and signed it on the same day the call took place and four days before the investigation was launched.
Try investigating that timeline.
More saddening still is that the investigation had already been closed with no charges.
State Attorney Glenn Hess did so on Oct. 16, nine days prior to the Oct. 25 meeting, without disseminating any information to the public about the investigation.
Therefore, none of this, none of these allegations or assertions or whatever adjective you wish to toss out about that Oct. 25 display, would have seen light if not for a 20-minute stretch of BOCC time devoted to axe-grinding.
That the second half of this display was a screed against a candidate for the BOCC, close to election day, during which Williams championed that candidate losing, forcing the BOCC to alter the canvassing board at the behest of the head judge of the 14th Judicial Circuit due to a clear conflict, makes the episode sadder still.
And that Oct. 25 meeting essentially closed the extortion file to the public, with only those accusations from that bruising 20 minutes in the air.
What was already a public record became a non-public record after the meeting because, according to the file, the investigation was reopened to revisit various aspects of the case – the PIO called it “new information” - due to a number of “phone calls” after the “heated discussion” of the meeting.
That new information was limited to one person, Garth, and represented a legal issue going back some 40 years that as Garth has stated was, to his understanding, long-ago resolved.
It had nothing to do with the extortion case and was known to investigators, according to the file, when Hess closed the case in October. Garth and any voter qualification issue were not mentioned Oct. 16.
So, there is a fair conclusion to draw about what was involved - politics, with a twist.
Maybe there are those who do not think sending a letter or conveying a message to a county commissioner requesting they step aside due to a conflict of interest found in state law – and which is the subject of an ongoing state Ethics Commission probe – is not appropriate.
But neither is using taxpayer time and money to the same ends, as the Oct. 25 meeting, in hindsight, was as much about “dirty politics” as anything the PAC did and the timing and results support that conclusion.
Any doubt, go to the tape.
Board of County Commissioners.
The following is a statement provided by Graney, who was the nexus for much of what transpired.
“Having the read the file which appears to me incomplete and misleading, I am pleased Mr. Hess has finally come to the obvious conclusion that the rights of citizens to organize, petition their government, exercise their right to free speech, and campaign to hold their elected leaders responsible for their actions is not a criminal offense.
“I hope now that the State Attorney’s Office will quietly spend some internal time examining how it was duped or influenced into wasting time and resources on silly, trumped up, self-serving charges. Let’s see, five months of taxpayer-funded effort and resources wasted, in a clear politically-motivated ‘witch hunt’ intended to intimidate those same taxpaying citizens to stop them from exercising their First Amendment rights.
“Wow – is that confusing, inept, silly, Keystone Kops, ya think?”