Volusia Politics: It’s not a crime, but it ought to be

The tempest in a teapot within the Volusia Republican Executive Committee continues to play out – and while I don’t believe Chairman Tony Ledbetter’s scheme rises to criminal misconduct – it has exposed the very dirty underbelly of his hand built local political apparatus.

In my view, this imbroglio is indicative of much larger problems in local politics.

Don’t get me wrong – I get it.

Politics in 2016 is a blood sport, and there appears to be no bottom to the rhetoric, posturing and personal destruction that permeates every race.

Perhaps it’s always been this way, but I’ll be dipped if I can recall a time when the major political parties took such an active role in openly rigging primary elections for certain hand-selected candidates – while doing everything possible to internally and externally ostracize same-party hopefuls.

I thought that’s what the opposition was supposed to do?

For example, the Democratic National Committee is in utter chaos after thousands of internal emails exposed a conspiracy at the highest levels of the organization to torpedo the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders.

I don’t know about you, but I never bought the ‘Russian intelligence’ hacking explanation.

While I see the strategic benefits to a foreign government obtaining opposition research and monitoring the internal communications of the DNC, it seems implausible that the Russian SVR’s political intelligence directorate would then expose sources and methods by dumping the results to WikiLeaks.

And I doubt the Russian’s are outsourcing their intel work to the DNC.

I’m no expert, but what little I do know tells me that hackers commonly route attack traffic through a third-party scapegoat – usually China, Russia or North Korea – and the packets used in these high-level intrusions are often nearly identical, making it almost impossible to positively identify the source of the ‘hack.’

While political espionage is nothing new, the whole Russian angle just seems too clean to me.

I could be wrong.

On the other hand, I have also followed with interest the suspicious death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Conrad Rich, who was shot to death on a street corner in Northwest Washington on July 10.

Rich, 27, was a self-described “data analyst” for the DNC working on voter expansion efforts.

According to a Washington Post report, “Police said they have no suspects, witnesses, or motive, though they are looking at whether Rich could have been slain in an attempted robbery.”

Since his death, numerous conspiracy theories (without any credible evidence) have run rampant on the internet, each essentially theorizing that Rich was killed after it was learned he was a whistleblower who provided WikiLeaks with the internal emails of the DNC to expose the election fraud designed to help Hillary Clinton win the Democratic primary.

I’ve never been one to put much stock in the myriad conspiracy theories that abound during any election cycle.  Namely because, in the end, we always find that the truth is far more chilling and treacherous than the wild speculation of a paranoid shut-in theorizing through his keyboard from his mother’s basement.

I also doubt that this blatant internal manipulation of the process is limited to the Democrats – even at the local level.

For example, it’s all but certain that “Chairman for Life” Tony Ledbetter and his minions at the Volusia Republican Executive Committee conspired to violate state party rules by circumventing the protocol which permits county organizations to endorse specific candidates for local office – even in non-partisan races.

What started out as an internal brouhaha over emphasis-added sample ballots being distributed by the VREC has now escalated into a criminal complaint filed with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the State Attorney by incumbent Volusia County Chairman Jason Davis.

No one ever accused Chairman Davis of being the sharpest knife in the drawer – he’s not – but even he should have seen this move as over-the-top.  While I admire his spunk in exposing this internecine chicanery, perhaps literally making a Federal case out of Ledbetter’s bullshit was a bit much.

Look, I’ve been out of the law enforcement game for a while now, but I’ll just bet the FBI has better things to do than wallow around in Volusia County partisan politics.

Now, whether or not Ledbetter’s scheme and resulting party discord rises to a violation of Florida’s election law is something else.

I’m not an attorney, but most of my adult life was spent interpreting the elements and proper application of criminal statutes.

In my view, the statute Davis cites was clearly written to address the use of violence and intimidation through bribery, menace or threat to influence a vote.

While the law contains a provision for, “other corruption whatsoever, either directly or indirectly,” I just don’t believe Ledbetter’s blundering efforts to get his candidates a leg-up (despite party rules) rises to a crime.

That said, I don’t know of anyone who has a more difficult job than R. J. Larizza.

As State Attorney, Mr. Larizza’s office is frequently asked to transcend the traditional prosecutorial role and serve as the referee for local political dust-ups – most of which you never hear about.

In fact, the nexus of election season sensitivities and the law often require a disinterested third-party to sort political low blows from criminal conduct – and I suspect, at the end of the day, cooler heads will prevail.

In my many years in law enforcement, on several occasions I was the recipient of some very stern – but extremely helpful – “suggestions” and independent insight from the Office of the State Attorney when I lost my objectivity, especially regarding petty internal spats.

I remain forever grateful for their invaluable guidance.  It kept me out of trouble more than once.

So, if the State Attorney reviews the complaint and “suggests” to Mr. Davis that these are political matters that require a political solution, I hope he – and his supporters – will receive that good advice in the spirit in which it is offered.

I also don’t think Tony Ledbetter, Ed Kelley and the state committee candidates should get away with it either.  What they did was wrong.

In my view, Mr. Davis and his fellow competitors are well within their rights to call for Ledbetter’s resignation or removal for his open manipulation of the process.

Clearly, Chairman Ledbetter needed a way to circumvent the state party rules regarding individual endorsements, and he found it at the point of a Sharpie highlighter.

Much like the Chairman himself – it was unsophisticated and marginally effective.

In a recent op/ed by the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the argument was made that election advocacy is a fundamental First Amendment issue, and a freedom exercised by many organizations through voter guides and similar means.

In the News-Journal’s view, “criminalizing politics by equating candidate endorsements to corruption severely undermines free speech.”

I agree.

In my view, Mr. Ledbetter has every right under the First Amendment to personally endorse any candidate he wishes.  However, as Chairman of the Volusia Republican Executive Committee, Ledbetter has a larger personal and ethical responsibility under the rules of the Republican Party to ensure basic fairness in the process.

You know, the whole “may the best man/woman win” thing.

What is not addressed – in either the newspaper’s editorial or the criminal complaint – is the question of what, if any, role the local donor class played in Ledbetter’s scheme.

In my view, it is simply absurd to believe that Chairman Ledbetter’s handiwork in giving Volusia County chair candidate Ed Kelley special emphasis on the Republican sample ballot is not directly related to the tens of thousands of dollars given by local special interests to bolster Kelley’s candidacy.

Trust me. Nothing happens in local or state Republican party politics that is not in some way orchestrated by – or given the tacit approval of – Mr. Mori Hossieni.

In an excellent 2014 profile by the Daytona Beach News-Journal, reporter Dustin Wyatt wrote, “Though Morteza “Mori” Hosseini, 59, has never won a single vote, no elected official in Volusia or Flagler counties wields more power.”

And you can just bet he has Chairman Ledbetter on speed-dial.

A review of Mr. Kelley’s campaign finance reports shows the extent to which Mr. Hosseini and his fellow big money players – J. Hyatt Brown, Lesa France-Kennedy, and others – have poured huge sums of cash into Kelley’s war chest.

As I’ve said before, I could care less who Mr. Hossieni, Mr. Brown, Ms. France-Kennedy or anyone else supports with their hard-earned money.

These folks are certainly smarter and infinitely more successful than I am, and if they want to invest massive piles of cash in Mr. Kelley’s campaign – who am I to argue?

So long as we call it what it is.

When big money is used to purchase political influence, which in turn is used to engineer a regulated electoral system in favor of a donor-selected candidate in direct violation of state party rules is, in my view, patently unfair as it corrupts the fundamental fairness of the process.

Fairness be damned.  I think Chairman Ledbetter was just doing what he was told.

I also doubt that a “following orders” explanation will sway those core Republican committee members who see this steaming pile of dog shit for what it is.

Unless Mr. Hossieni and the other high rollers stand firmly behind Chairman Ledbetter, I think it’s safe to say that this won’t end well for him.

And it shouldn’t.

After all, at the end of the day, the VREC attempted to do the exact same thing that brought such shame and embarrassment to the Democratic National Committee – they broke the rules and violated the confidence, honor and character of the constituents they represent in an effort to illicitly manipulate the system.

If that’s not a crime, it ought to be.



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