Had Tom Graney of St. Joe Beach known what two men identifying themselves as investigators were inquiring about in early summer he would have told them to “buzz off.”
The State Attorney’s Office opened an investigation earlier this year into allegations that the Political Action Committee Citizens Improving Gulf County had attempted to extort County Commissioner Warren Yeager from a re-election campaign with allegations including complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics.
That investigation went public Thursday morning during a meeting of the Board of County Commissioners when Port St. Joe resident Christine McElroy said she had cooperated in the investigation and Commission chair Bill Williams stated several times that he had worn a wire during the investigation.
McElroy was waved to the podium by commissioners during the public comment portion of the meeting and immediately began to discuss the investigation and actions by the PAC.
The allegations of “blackmail” as Williams termed it during the Commission meeting, and “extortion” as it was called in an Oct. 16 letter from State Attorney Glenn Hess, apparently originated with a conversation Graney had with Williams in the spring before Williams decided not to seek re-election to the District 3 seat.
Graney’s is the only name mentioned in Hess’s letter which closed the case, which was subsequently reopened following Thursday’s meeting, according to Public Information Officer David Angier.
Angier reported Friday morning that the file was closed and submitted a letter dated Oct. 16 from Hess to Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent Matthew Herring telling him to close the file. He said staff was trying to locate the file.
By early Friday afternoon, Angier reported back that the investigation was in fact back open based upon information received since Thursday’s meeting.
Angier said no one else with the State Attorney’s Office could comment on the investigation.
Hess’ letter states that while “allegations of extortion pertaining to Gulf County Commissioner Warren Yeager establishes probable cause,” the entire case rested with statements made by Graney to the two investigators, one whom identified himself as Herring. Graney said he did not recall the name of the other investigator and they did not offer business cards.
The investigators came to Graney’s house, asked to speak to him and over 45 minutes asked him a series of questions about what he knew about the PAC. Graney freely obliged, he said.
In his letter, Hess noted that no other witnesses – several other people were contacted and declined to answer questions as is their right, Hess wrote – came forward to verify Graney’s statements about the PAC.
As Graney was the only witness to the allegations that Citizens Improving Gulf County had attempted to extort Yeager from the race for the District 5 seat, Hess said the charges could not be sustained beyond a reasonable doubt.
“A prosecutor’s responsibility is to charge crimes when the facts can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hess wrote to Herring. “In this instance the question is whether there is a crime or just dirty politics; reasonable people could well differ.”
Graney believes he is the source of the allegations and believed they stemmed from a conversation he had with Williams concerning campaign strategy. Graney believes Williams recorded the conversation without his knowledge.
Williams acknowledged “wearing a wire” several times during Thursday’s meeting of the BOCC, calling the investigation one involving “blackmail.”
He could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Graney said his name shows up because he was one person who talked to investigators.
He told investigators that in the spring he had given Williams an idea of the political landscape as the campaign season heated up and talked strategy.
Graney - who is not a member of the PAC, says he does not know their membership but has worked with PAC president Jim Garth in the past - said the questions investigators asked when they visited weeks later quickly provided an idea that the conversation with Williams was not confidential.
He told investigators what he had told Williams from what he had learned from Garth; that the PAC would be campaigning against incumbents and the PAC believed it had sufficient ammunition to unseat them.
Graney said all he told investigators was what he had been told by Garth and had later relayed to Williams.
“I just wanted to let (Williams) know what was out there,” Graney said. “That is what I told the investigators. They said that could be interpreted as a threat. I said I don’t think so and I was sure Williams and Yeager didn’t see it as a threat.”
From Graney investigators contacted a number of other individuals, though McElroy is the only other person known to have spoken to investigators, acknowledging she had met with investigators several times.
Graney said he offered investigators a sit down with he and Garth and offered to get Garth on the phone while the investigators were in his house. They declined and the meeting among the four of them never happened. The investigators asked Graney to wear a wire during a conversation with Garth which he refused, Graney said.
The investigation then “died” Graney said for a time before coming back to life shortly after the August primary.
Graney said had he known from the outset the intent of the investigators visit he would have cut it short.
“If I had any idea what they were talking about I would have told them to buzz off,” Graney said. “I got myself bush-whacked by Williams. This thing was a comedy routine. It was Keystone Kops. This is silliness.”
Graney said he would like to know if Williams was authorized by the State Attorney to record their conversation. If not, he said, he believes it is illegal for an individual to record any conversation without the other person’s knowledge.
He said he had no clue Williams, a friend for more than a decade, was recording the campaign discussion.