The race for the Ninth Circuit (Orange and Osceola County) State Attorney took an unfortunate turn this week, with the already heated political rhetoric boiling over into actual threats.
Current State Attorney Lawson Lamar is facing a challenge from Jeff Ashton. Both candidates are registered Democrats, and no one else is on the ballot, so under Florida law, all Orange and Osceola County voters can participate in this election, no matter what their party registration is.
The unusual open primary has introduced some interesting dynamics to the race. Because the Democrats have very few contested primaries on the ballot, Republican turnout is expected to be higher, and both Lamar and Ashton are seeking Republican votes.
Lamar, as a military veteran, former Orange County Sheriff, and current State Attorney with a long history of involvement in the Central Florida community, has easily won Republican votes in past elections.
Ashton seems to be finding trouble attracting similar support from Central Florida Republicans, and some of his campaign's allies are not helping matters.
|Ad for Clary's columns|
Ashton's campaign manager, Susan Clary, has long been active in Democratic political circles, previously serving as communications director of Alan Grayson's campaign and then later working in his Congressional office.
Clary's Facebook page says that her political views are "Democratic Party," and both her Facebook page and her LinkedIn profile list involvement in a number of campaigns for Democratic candidates (no Republicans) and groups such as the Sierra Club and the ACLU. She frequently posts articles and comments in support of Democratic candidates and elected officials.
I met Clary several years ago and have never known her to be anything other than a Democrat. Curiously, Clary seems to now be denying that she is a Democrat and attempting to promote Ashton in Facebook groups targeted to Republicans.
Doug Guetzloe, another of Ashton's most vocal supporters, is Central Florida's own one-man Westboro Baptist Church: if he protests against you, you're probably doing something right.
I'm trying to keep this post from getting ridiculously long, so here are some links about Guetzloe's most
famous infamous deeds: years of repeated accusations of collaboration with Alan Grayson (see here and here) including the creation of a third party political party using the name "Florida Tea Party" with the goal of splitting the conservative vote in Grayson's district and others around Florida (see posts here, here, here, and here), multiple findings by the Florida Elections Commission of election law violations and thousands of dollars in unpaid fines, allegations of political corruption and extortion, $1.61 million defamation verdict against Guetzloe after he insinuated that the plaintiff was a pedophile on his radio show, and a 15 month federal prison sentence for failure to file tax returns (delayed during appeal).
Bottom line: neither Susan Clary nor Doug Guetzloe are considered to be influential in respectable Republican circles. Both have had their names closely tied to Grayson's for years, in addition to Guetzloe's activities in the 2010 elections attempting to defeat good Republican candidates with his third party effort.
This now brings us to Jeff Tepper, a retired accountant from Long Island who moved to Central Florida a few years ago. Tepper became active in the Orange County Republican Executive Committee ("OCREC") and befriended many local Republicans. Tepper noticed that the Orange County Political Voice ("OCPV") Facebook group had many posts about local races, and that the discussions seemed dominated by Democrats, as well as Guetzloe.
Tepper had learned about Guetzloe from OCREC members and was skeptical about Guetzloe's intentions. He posted a Channel 13 news article about Guetzloe's most recent sentence for failure to pay tax returns in the OCPV Facebook group.
You can view Tepper's OCPV post yourself here. I don't know how long they will leave it up (especially after my post), but I have screenshots saved. Here is the post and the first few comments:
The next set of comments (Clary's last comment is repeated at the top of this screenshot):
Note that all Tepper did was post a news article. He makes no comments about Guetzloe, critical or otherwise. The response from OCPV group members is chilling: they say they are hiring a private investigator to "check out" Tepper, and then Susan Clary responds that she has an investigator's license and that she'll check him out herself.
Besides her strange objection to being called a Democrat (she is a Democrat), it's Clary's public statement that she is going to investigate Tepper that raises a lot of questions. Even more alarming is Clary's statement that she "may work for the SA [presumably, State Attorney's Office] someday soon."
Unfortunately for Tepper, it appears that this group might have made good on their threats. A comment was posted later that the "surveillance" was "on-track:"
Is Clary actually publicly declaring her intention to investigate Tepper for merely posting a news article in a public Facebook group and telling the truth about her political affiliation? What should we make of her reference to working for the State Attorney's Office "someday soon?" If Ashton gets elected, and Clary is hired by his office, what does she intend to do with her powers? Is Tepper the only citizen she intends to investigate? What of all the other opponents of her past political clients? Is someone actually conducting surveillance on Tepper? Who is paying for that? Or is this just an effort to intimidate a critic into silence?
I spoke with Tepper on the phone last night, and he told me he was in shock and disbelief when he read Clary's comments about investigating him, asking himself what Clary could possibly be thinking: "Does Ashton know that this is the caliber of people he is hiring? This is crazy." Tepper was curious about the legal implications of Clary's comments, and I did some quick research:
- Chapter 493 of the Florida Statutes governs private investigators, and several sections specifically address misconduct, deceit, fraud, acting in a way "that would cause a reasonable person to believe" that the investigator "has official authority" or "committing any act that is intended to falsely convey official status," and designate certain offenses as crimes (see, e.g., sections 493.6118, 493.6119, 493.6120, et al.).
- More to the point, Section 760.51, Fla. Stat., allows for civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation against anyone who "interferes by threats, intimidation, or coercion, or attempts to interfere by threats, intimidation, or coercion, with the exercise or enjoyment by any other person of rights secured by the State Constitution or laws of this state." Clary's comments on the the OCPV Facebook post could be interpreted as attempts to intimidate Tepper and interfere with his free speech rights.
- In addition, several of the Florida Bar Rules of Ethics, the ethical and professional responsibility rules that govern attorneys, could come into play if Ashton did in fact know what Clary, his campaign manager, was doing.
|That's how it's supposed to be, anyway.|
Considering what I've written about Guetzloe, Ashton, and Grayson previously, and now in this post, what is going to happen to me? Should I expect to find someone tailing me? Will I find a private investigator digging through my trash? Worse, if Ashton wins the election, am I safe in my hometown?
Are you safe? What have you posted on Facebook about political candidates? Are we really going to tolerate these thuggish tactics from the campaign of someone who seeks to be our community's top law enforcement officer?
Central Florida, we can do better. We don't have to accept bullying tactics and unethical behavior from would-be elected officials.
I call on Jeff Ashton to honor the oath he took as an attorney, and to honor the Office of the State Attorney, by publicly denouncing the threats against a private citizen by his campaign manager, Susan Clary. Frankly, I don't know how anything less than immediately terminating her employment and relationship with the campaign could be sufficient.
If Ashton fails to distance himself from Clary and her reprehensible intimidation tactics, then we can only assume that he condones this activity, and Orange and Osceola County voters should consider themselves warned about what we should expect from Ashton if he is elected State Attorney.