An investigation into extortion charges against the political action committee Citizens Improving Gulf County and its president was closed last week with no formal charges filed.
The case was closed without charges on Oct. 16, but reopened Oct. 25 based on “new information”, according to the public information officer for the State Attorney’s Office.
Hess, in an unsigned letter closing the case last Wednesday, two days after The Star and its sister paper the Panama City News Herald renewed a request to see the file, arguing that once the file was public record – as it was when closed Oct. 16 by Hess – it remained a public record, said he found probable cause that an act of extortion had been committed.
“However, a jury could just as well have concluded that it was no more than dirty politics,” Hess wrote to Special Agent Renee Hatton with the FDLE.
A “heated discussion” transpired during an Oct. 25 BOCC meeting, Hess wrote Hatton, and “subsequently a number of phone calls” were made to Hess’s office about aspects of the case, “one of which was revisited”, he wrote.
“A criminal history obtained during the initial investigation shows that (PAC president Jim Garth) is a felon having been convicted in federal court of misapplication of bank funds. He has voted in Florida elections but it does not appear that his civil rights have been restored.”
Hess noted that is a third degree felony for a person to vote knowing he is disqualified.
Hess said in a letter to Garth and Supervisor of Elections Linda Griffin that research showed Garth had a felony conviction in Georgia, had “apparently” never had his civil rights restored and therefore was ineligible to vote in Florida elections.
Hess, in his letter to Griffin said the Garth could apply to have his rights restored in time for the 2014 elections.
In an Oct. 16 letter to Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent Matt Herring closing the original extortion case, Hess made no mention of a voter qualification issue involving Garth, though according to the Dec. 19 letter is was discovered during the initial investigation.
Hess said a letter would be sent to Garth and Griffin that he was disqualified to vote.
“Beyond that, I see no reason to pursue this matter,” Hess concludes in his letter to Hatton. “The investigation into the extortion complaint and the voter disqualification issue may be considered closed with no action required.”
In a statement, Garth responded.
“It is now obvious that a real life ‘witch hunt’ has been in progress against Citizens Improving Gulf County and its key members including myself,” Garth wrote. “The public needs to know that our membership consists of veterans, distinguished military retirees, retired Florida State law enforcement officers, local business owners and concerned citizens. Having to go back almost 40 years and only finding a very old resolved issue concerning myself is testimony to how desperate certain County Commissioners were to shift the focus off of their behavior and questionable violations.
“I am pleased this file which has serious questionable handling is finally available and that the State Attorney’s Office concluded that there are no grounds for any charge against myself or any member of Citizens Improving Gulf County. However, the investigation by the Florida Ethics Commission against Commissioner Yeager’s employment with Preble-Rish Engineering has yet to be resolved and is still ongoing.
“Citizens Improving Gulf County is encouraged by the findings and is now more resolved than ever to expose corruption in Gulf County.”
The probable cause for the original “extortion” investigation, according to the case file, is found in affidavits from county administrator Don Butler and former County Commissioner Bill Williams relating that a third-party, St. Joe Beach resident Tom Graney, a long-time confidant of Williams, had communicated information that the PAC had information it was prepared to make public if Commissioner Warren Yeager pursued re-election.
Williams’ affidavit relates a conversation with Graney on June 15; Butler’s a conversation on June 17.
In a June 19 statement, State Attorney investigator James Jensen told Herring that Graney had contacted Williams and Butler to “extort” Yeager out of the race.
If Yeager did not drop out, Jensen related to Herring, Graney had indicated the PAC would release information damaging to Yeager’s personal life and professional career.
Hess formally launched the inquiry June 19.
“That should not be probable cause to do anything,” Graney said. “What a silly process.”
Graney has labeled the investigation a “Keystone Kops comedy routine.”
Herring and Jensen provided Williams with a recording device to record a private conversation between Williams and Graney on June 28, which lasted nearly 90 minutes.
Graney said the conversation was to alert Williams, who was still debating a run for re-election to the Board of County Commissioners, about the information that was out there about the various BOCC races.
Graney said he may have been “injudicious” in some of his comments to Williams, agreeing too freely to some of his friend’s assertions, but that the basis of the conversation was to provide the local political landscape and advice to a friend he had backed for eight years.
Graney told Williams in the recorded conversation that he did not interpret the information from the PAC to be blackmail, but “politics” in which methods may be unethical but not illegal.
The term blackmail, according to the file, was used by deputy county administrator Michael Hammond in a phone call related by Butler in his affidavit and by Williams during his recorded conversation with Graney.
Williams used the term at least five times during the Oct. 25 BOCC meeting.
Yeager was reelected.