|Karen Castor Dentel|
Karen Castor Dentel, currently employed by Orange County Public Schools as a teacher at Dommerich Elementary School, is challenging State Representative Scott Plakon for the District 30 seat in one of the most closely watched campaigns in Florida this year.
Dentel comes from a family of prominent Democrats (mother Betty is a former state senator and education commissioner, and her sister Kathy is a Congresswoman), so I assumed she would have the best advisers helping her campaign, especially considering how highly the Florida Democratic Party was prioritizing this race.
However, recent developments reveal a stunning pattern of ethical violations by Dentel, including complaints filed with the Florida Elections Commission and the Florida Commission on Ethics. I've embedded both complaints below, or you can click on the links in the previous sentence to view them.
I'll get more into the details of these complaints later, but the short story is Dentel is accused of violating Florida Statutes prohibiting misuse of public position, by using government resources to fundraise and promote her candidacy, among other issues.
Reading through the allegations in these complaints, I'm left to wonder, were the Democrats really not taking this race as seriously as I had expected and failing to properly supervise Dentel's campaign, or worse, was the party so desperate for victory at any cost that they are willing to overlook these blatant abuses of the public trust by one of their candidates?
Let me be clear: the Florida Statutes have a number of provisions prohibiting using government resources and positions for personal political gain, and responsibility for compliance with those provisions lies first and foremost with the candidate. However, the very blatant nature of these violations makes it reasonable to ask who else knew about Dentel's actions, and whether anyone advised her against this course of action?
How high in the Florida Democratic Party this corruption reaches will have to wait for another day. Let's get to the substance of the complaints.
First, the complaint filed with the Florida Elections Commission:
And here is the complaint filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics:
The emails referenced in both complaints have been put into a separate document here, for easier viewing:
In the interest of keeping this post as concise and clear as possible, I would direct you to the complaints themselves for the exact language of the statutes at issue, and focus my discussion on the substance of the violations, and why I find Dentel's conduct so egregious.
As shown by Dentel's emails (available as public records under Florida's "Sunshine Laws"), she repeatedly used her Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) email account, during school hours, in furtherance of her political candidacy. She also requests that other OCPS employees use government resources to help her promote her campaign, asks to use OCPS property for her campaign, and asks for fundraising help.
A few specific examples:
- 4/19/2012, 11:31 am: Dentel emails Dommerich Elementary Principal Junella Handley, promoting her political campaign by telling Ms. Handley, in a conversation relating to her campaign, that “it might be best for you to simply mention it during the next faculty meeting."
- 4/26/2012, 3:51 pm: Dentel again emailed Principal Handley (using both Dentel and Handley's OCPS email accounts) to request permission to conduct a political campaign interview and photography session on school property, and in a school classroom.
- 5/7/2012, 11:02 am: Dentel sends an email from her OCPS email account in response to Suzette Taylor, discussing Taylor’s offer to host a campaign event saying “And thank you, I would really appreciate your help with an event." Dentel also asks Taylor “Did you see the profile piece of me in the Observer this week?” likely referring to a piece done by the Winter Park/Maitland Observer on Dentel’s House campaign a few days prior. This email also illustrates a pattern of specifically mixing official school business and campaign activities during school hours, first discussing a trip to Sea World, then a reimbursement for another school trip, and then the prospects of the Taylors hosting an event in furtherance of Dentel’s campaign.
- 5/15/2012, various times: Dentel exchanges a series of emails with Elizabeth Bernbaum about upcoming events and campaign opportunities. Interestingly, Dentel writes to Bernbaum "You can use my home email for anything related to the campaign - firstname.lastname@example.org," but does not insist that her OCPS email not be used, and indeed continues the conversation about campaign issues with her OCPS email account.
Dentel took no such precautions, distributing campaign fundraising materials on Dommerich Elementary property, even leaving an invitation to a campaign kickoff fundraiser in Principal Handley's office mailbox, as referenced in Dentel's 6/11/2012 email to Handley, and Handley's 6/13/2012 reply. In that same email, Handley reminds Dentel about school board policy and asks Dentel if she has read through the rules.
Apparently, Dentel was too busy violating other statutes to bother reading school board policies restricting her fundraising, as other emails that very same week show her attempting to influence the OCPS Superintendent, and solicit future employment.
On 6/11/2012, Dentel emailed Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, to say that she had qualified for office, but to also discuss her future employment with OCPS. Acknowledging that a teaching position would be difficult to maintain with the obligations and time commitments of a State Representative, Dentel asks to meet with Superintendent Jenkins to discuss “options that would be advantageous to OCPS and allow me to maintain my employment” and implies that she will be able to assist OCPS because she will “have a relationship with decision makers throughout Florida as a state representative."
This request was a misuse of Dentel's public position as an OCPS employee, and a solicitation for future employment in exchange for influence she could wield in the Florida Legislature, were she to win her election.
It's not entirely clear what sort of employment Dentel had in mind, but offering to use her "relationship with decision makers throughout Florida" in a way that would be "advantageous to OCPS" sure sounds a lot like lobbying.
Did Dentel really intend to solicit employment as a paid lobbyist for OCPS while serving as a state representative? Regardless, asking for a job based on influence that she would presumably wield as an elected state representative cuts to the heart of what Florida's ethics laws seek to prevent.
So, here's a summary of what we know so far:
- Dentel used her OCPS email account and other OCPS resources during work hours to conduct business for her campaign, solicit support, and fundraise.
- Dentel used her OCPS email account to request that other OCPS employees promote her campaign and otherwise assist her.
- Dentel was reminded about rules prohibiting fundraising on public property.
- Dentel distributed campaign fundraising materials on OCPS property.
- Dentel used government property in at least one campaign ad.
- Dentel made an offer to another OCPS employee (Superintendent Jenkins) that, if elected to state representative, she would be able to use her influence in a way that would be "advantageous" to OCPS, in the context of asking to discuss future employment opportunities with OCPS.
Money and influence will always be a matter of concern in politics. But when those who already hold positions of public office seek to use the advantages of that office for their own personal political gain, Florida law assigns consequences for such behavior. In Dentel's case, the penalties could range from monetary fines to disqualification from the ballot and the loss of her employment with OCPS.
Hopefully, the Florida Commission on Ethics and Florida Elections Commission will be able to conduct a thorough investigation of the complaints filed against Dentel in advance of the election on November 6. Considering that absentee ballots have already been mailed and early voting begins soon, time is of the essence.
More importantly, the taxpayers of Orange County and the voters of District 30 deserve an explanation of these matters directly from Karen Castor Dentel herself, as well as a sincere apology for her violations of the public trust.
Florida Political Press | HD 30 Candidate Karen Castor Dentel Faces Serious Charges Filed With FEC
Florida Political Press | Emails Released Supporting FEC Complaint Filed Against Democrat Candidate Karen Castor Dentel
Shark Tank | Complaint Alleges Castor-Dentel Solicited Campaign Contributions In School Building