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.
The primary ended the voters spoke, and we moved into the general campaign. The “ investigators” suddenly reappeared I received alerts from several candidates and friends that the investigators were back and visiting candidates or alleged PAC members requesting meetings/interviews, at least four residents contacted me to let me know? Why me, because it was also now common knowledge that there was a tape out there of my conversation with Williams. Wow –well run confidential investigation -not! Or a vehicle to intimidate the PAC, Garth, or selected candidates-oh well, whatever? Sometime during this period I learned that the investigation was formally closed by Mr. Glenn Hess on Oct. 16 with no action taken.
The capstone finale for this whole sordid six month event was the BOCC meeting of Oct. 25, 2012 just one week before Election Day. I urge everyone to see the tape if you have not. This was a clearly well staged planned event intended to smear the PAC members, Garth, and it was obvious. Their plan was to get the now closed SAO investigation into the public arena to create a guilt by accusation and association premise, since they knew as of Oct. 16 there will be no criminal findings and no handcuffs. All commissioners were involved. They got a resident, Ms. Christine McElroy, a known associate of Yeager, who had been used previously to attack Garth and the PAC. The result- a 20-minute plus diatribe supported by unanimously approved three minute time extensions. McElroy was set up to enthusiastically reveal confidential information about the SAO investigation and then embellish it with falsehoods and innuendo intended to smear the PAC members, Garth, Bryan and others. Commissioner “I wore a wire” Williams will brag, then lie about the investigation being serious and ongoing even though they all knew it was closed on Oct. 16 with no action. Also he will throw in a personal attack along with McElroy, to implicate Bryan.Commissioner McLemore will threaten “ blow-ins” and the PAC with deportation; Commissioner Tan Smiley will ask why we can’t come together and keep politics out of politics; Commissioner Ward McDaniel will misquote the constitution and Yeager will smile and talk about the good old days when we all behaved.
Probably an unintended consequence of this performance was that the so-called criminal investigation conducted by the SAO was now public and the closed file could be demanded by the public and the press. That occurred, after many delays and unresponsive dealings with the SAO office it was released to “The Star”. I have reviewed the file and predictably it raises more questions about the entire silly episode than it answers. (Note: As a senior Army Commander one duty I performed was Court Martial Convening Authority. That is similar to the role of a District Attorney, in my case for a community of 25,000 soldiers, families and civilian employees. Over three years I reviewed and decided actions taken in 50-75 criminal cases based on the file provided by MP and CID investigators guided by the Staff Judge Advocate. Based on that experience, in my opinion, this case file is woefully inadequate. It is incomplete, unprofessional and if this meets the standard for the FDLE and/or the SAO for a controlled and well directed criminal investigation those of us who reside in this district and rely on the justice system to protect us and our rights have a serious problem.) The discrepancies in the file and investigation report are numerous and writing an analysis of the issues and inconsistences would take more time and space than I have now. A quick list of several of issues as I see them follows.
The sworn statements from Williams and others are not accurate and in three instances may be deliberate lies. They read like a telephone pass it on game and any experienced investigator should have been skeptical.
The dates of the statements appear to bend time. Apparently Williams made his complaint to SAO about June 17, yet the sworn statement was signed the day of our wired conversation (June 28, 2012) - why? Who reviewed those documents and authorized the taping? No record of that authorization or conclusion is in the file.
The file ends with the interview with me on July 17 as I think it should have; since it should have been clear at that point to any competent investigator that there was no criminal activity or “blackmail.” However, Mr. Hess says the investigation was not concluded until Oct. 16. What occurred during that 90 day period? There are no entries in the file.
There is no record of the three attempts to conduct interviews that I know occurred between July and August?
No record of the three interviews with McElroy which she said (Oct. 25) were conducted?
No record of the interviews with the individuals mentioned by McElroy (Oct. 25) in which she reported the subjects invoked their Fifth Amendment privilege?
No activities mentioned that supposedly led to the discovery of a previous felony conviction of Garth? No record of any documents that led to that conclusion. Who? What? Where? This very publicly released investigation finding/accusation has yet to be documented by any evidence. The Supervisor of Elections office when pursuing appropriate actions asked the SAO office for the evidence/record and was told, “Never mind” and Garth has yet to receive any response from the SAO to his request of 75 days ago?
What happened between July 17 and Oct. 16? There were several visits to county residents by investigators and multiple attempts at interviews. Several after the primary election date when commissioner Yeager the alleged victim was reelected. Since there is no record in the investigation file, the question becomes was all this activity just meant to intimidate Garth, the PAC, candidates or voters.
This saga can continue for many more pages but I am out of time and paper. What does all this mean for us Gulf County residents, voters, and candidates? Is the SAO so easily duped by pols and influence peddlers that he can’t determine free speech from crimes? Did someone in the SAO’s office deliberately participate in an effort to intimidate the PAC, Garth, voters and candidates? Every Gulf County voter must look at the issues put them in the context of that election cycle and decide for themselves. Then recognize that we are less than two years from the next one and two of the commissioners, Smiley and McDaniel, who participated in the “Clown Act” of Oct. 25, will be up for reelection and Hess is up two years after that. I believe this whole episode was contrived to intimidate, suppress the free speech activities of citizens and candidates of Gulf County. If you think the same, remember it and hold them all responsible for ineptitude or attempting to use the law and your tax dollars to intimidate and influence your election process.
Colonel Pierce T. Graney, US Army (RET)
St. Joe Beach