Cops, robbers and cronies

Published: Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 09:49 AM.

By Tom Graney

The Gulf County 2012 election cycle is over.  Hopefully this will lead to more open effective and efficient government.  Wow, even something as radical as County Wide Voting may be on the horizon.

However, one ridiculous issue that loomed over the entire cycle that began before the candidate registration period closed and lasted through Election Day and still is not resolved to this day.  That is The State Attorney’s Office (SAO) investigation of citizens exercising their first amendment rights.   A group of residents/citizens formed a Political Action Committee (PAC) called Citizens Improving Gulf County.  This PAC, properly registered with the Supervisor of Elections had active members from every district in the County; its effect seemed to bring almost a “County Wide Voting” atmosphere to the process as they highlighted BOCC Commission issues and performance across the entire county, a welcome service and activity.  After some rough starts this PAC became very effective delivering its message, it definitely was a plus during this cycle, and I hope it continues- next issue “County Wide Voting”.  Apparently the PAC activities caused great concern among a group of residents who prefer the status quo.

This faction rather than deal with issues in public campaigns as the political process normally provides chose to engage in activities to discredit and intimidate the PAC and its members. 

How did this all this happen?  This is what occurred to the best of my knowledge with some conclusions and opinion mixed in.  On June 28 I met with my friend, Commissioner Bill Williams. We had always planned to talk about how he would end his term of office since he and I both had long understood he was not going to run again.  He gave me the time and place as he often did because of his schedule lunch –beers together- cigars etc.  We met, my interest was to get Bill to end his term as Commissioner and current Chairman gracefully calming down the commission politics, thank his supporters, remind all he was a Republican, that he wanted the party and county to continue grow, but his effort over eight years was long enough and he had to focus now on personal life and business.  Also I wanted him to endorse a successor candidate, Joanna Bryan, as the best choice for the District Three voters. These political issue conversations were routine, we usually had them at least monthly over the past 12 years, sometimes weekly or even daily in the election cycle. We were close friends as were our families and he usually served our district and county well.  At the time I thought this particular conversation was really wide ranging and a little strange as he kept leading the topic to the PAC’s activities particularly as related to Commissioner Warren Yeager’s activities but, oh well. 

About a week later two men appeared at my house, told me they were investigators from the SAO and asked if I would talk to them concerning an inquiry into criminal activity.  I initially thought they were dealing with an ethics complaint that I heard had been filed concerning Yeager.  As we talked it became clear that the interview was about my conversation with Williams; they informed me it had been recorded.  They said that at that time I was a “witness” to an attempt at criminal extortion by the PAC and particularly Mr. Garth.  My reaction was that’s ridiculous there was nothing but our discussion of the political environment as we saw it and how Williams should handle it positively.  A lot of circular Q+A followed in an attempt to intimidate me.  They then asked me if I would wear a wire and have a planned conversation with Garth.  My answer was of course not, but if they wanted to talk to both of us, either I would get him on the phone for a four-way conversation or he would be here in a few minutes to resolve any issues they thought existed.  They said not now but they would consider it. Soon the tenor of the conversation changed.  They said, “Well extortion had occurred,” one of them insisted on reading me the statute, “and someone would be arrested and charged, if they could not get evidence on Garth, then I could be the one arrested.”   My response was- “If the witness (me) saw no crime then the witness is the criminal?”  The conversation continued like this for about 45 minutes and really got very silly. They asked me if I would testify against Garth.  My answer was I would tell anyone the truth but I did not believe that it would indicate any criminal activity.  They asked me who was a member of the PAC.  I answered that I did not know anyone for certain other than Garth but that it was registered at the Election Supervisors Office; go look. They read me a list of names and asked if I knew about them I don’t remember all the names. My impression as the dialog continued was, the investigator from FDLE attitude changed and he began to see that this was much ado about nothing.  The other guy from the SAO office continued to be somewhat confrontational and the meeting soon ended. I asked them for their business cards and believe it or not, both said they didn’t have any, -- other coat or other truck or something.  They said they would be in touch as soon as they talked to Garth about a four-way meeting.  I said fine and never heard from them again except by telephone an hour or so later saying they would not be setting up a meeting with Garth and me.  That ended any contact I had with the SAO office and I thought the issue very silly “keystone Kops” like, and appropriately dead.  Also I never heard from “my former old friend Williams again.” Except for one cryptic e-mail a few days later that indicated Garth should be concerned and feel threatened.  Hmmm… oh well.  The issue of who authorized this conversation to be taped and based on what evidence or probable cause was never discussed with them, but it concerned me, I noted it, and will discuss it later. 

The primary election process went into full swing moving to the vote.  As the door knocking  and campaign contacts increased I was surprised to be asked and be contacted by people who made direct remarks and veiled references to the PAC investigation. Obviously this confidential investigation was “leaking” and threats and misinformation concerning PAC members or candidates they supported were floating.  Although I never heard of any specific activity by the “investigators” or SAO during this period.

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