Volusia Politics: Sorting the wheat from the chaff

(Que the “Dragnet” theme)

On January 4, 2014, the Volusia County Council adopted an ordinance appointing Daytona Beach attorney Jon Kaney, as special counsel to investigate whether Waverley Media, LLC, had a scheme to obtain influence over county government for its business purposes by “various means,” including support of candidates for public office.

Not everyone was happy that certain members of the County Council wanted to pick the scab and throw some shade on their political opponents and elected adversaries – despite the best advise of the county attorney.

The county’s contentious inquiry seemed superfluous, as it came on the heels of an investigation into the matter by the Office of the State Attorney, which resulted in the criminal prosecution of Jim Brown, an employee of Waverley Media, on charges he intentionally violated campaign finance laws using straw donors, and excessive in-kind contributions of bus bench advertising, for select candidates for county office.

Brown later plead to the charges and provided substantial assistance in the State’s investigation.

He received probation for his crimes and later died.

Following an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Jim Sotolongo and Ramara Garrett – as owners of both Waverley Media, and an associated real estate business – along with certain subordinates, were identified as having participated in a massive mortgage fraud scheme which resulted in Sotolongo being convicted and sentenced to eight-years in federal prison.

The State Attorney’s investigation determined, “Sotolongo and his subordinates inserted themselves within our community and within many formal and informal political, banking and real estate groups.  They established and used media companies, real estate companies, bus bench advertising companies, real estate companies, real estate title companies and others to circumvent Florida Elections Laws.  While Mr. Sotolongo and subordinates “puffed and stuffed” their way through elections there is no credible evidence that any candidates were knowing participants in the unlawful contributions scam.”

 Although more wide-ranging in scope, Mr. Kaney’s administrative investigation also failed to develop substantial evidence that any candidate was directly aware of the illegality of Waverley’s cash and in-kind contributions.

(What?  I was clearing my throat.  Geez.)

Clearly, Mr. Kaney’s inquiry did not sit well with everyone, especially those members of the Volusia County Council – and former unsuccessful candidates – who were identified as having received support from Waverley Media.

And the idea that the County Council extended subpoena power to Mr. Kaney really rankled the feathers of a few who adamantly did not wish to provide sworn testimony about what they knew, and when.  Especially when the scope of the investigation appears literally wide-open to the investigator’s own interpretation.

In my experience, allegations of perjury in an official proceeding can have some rather ugly complications – especially if you make your living in the law – or from an elected seat on a government dais.

I’m not a lawyer, but I find its best to avoid raising your hand and swearing an oath whenever possible.  Trust me.

Regardless, a judge later found that the council’s deligation of subpoena power crossed the line.

At the end of the day, Kaney’s investigation appeared to give everyone what they wanted – the right people were either sufficiently humiliated, or exonerated, depending upon the political motivations of the players involved.

For instance, it was rumored that former County Councilman Josh Wagner was “directing” the nefarious Waverley contributions to preferred candidates as a means of gaining a majority voting bloc.

Now, rumors and insinuation are clearly not credible evidence – but, depending upon your motive, they can make for some damn good reading – and political finger-pointing.

In his final report, Mr. Kaney wrote:

“…in their interviews with me, four council members expressed the opinion that Mr. Wagner was the person who decided which candidates received Waverley’s support.  Pat Patterson stated, “The rumor I kept getting, and I really – it’s all secondhand, was that Josh Wagner was the one directing it. . . .I had always heard that he had a very friendly relationship with Jim Sotolongo, Ramera Garrett and Jim Brown.”  Doug Daniels expressed the belief that Wagner was in charge of Waverley’s in-kind contributions.  “Back during the 2013 campaign, the un-kept secret was that – you know, you could get bus benches for free, or very nearly free, and that the gatekeeper to that was Josh.”

 “As did others on the Council, Pat Northey testified that Wagner was rumored to be the person who decided where Waverley’s support was applied, but she is unsure how she came across this information.  “The rumor was Josh Wagner was the ringleader of it all.  That Josh was the guy that kept the list.  That there was a list, and approved list, of people who would get free advertising, and Josh was the one who determined who that was.”

Mr. Wagner – a lawyer himself –  only copped to making “suggestions” to Sotolongo and Garrett as to which candidate they should support – and Mr. Kaney rightly concluded that “…the evidence is not sufficient to establish that it is more likely than not that Wagner determined who would receive this support.”

But the damage was done.

 You get the idea.

In the end, the Kaney root-around did what neither the State Attorney’s Office – or the FBI’s – investigations were designed to do.  It provided a public airing of the rumor and political innuendo that was hanging in the air like a foul stench.

And – depending upon who you ask – it had all the earmarks of a good old timey political payback.

It was some pretty good political theater, too.  I encourage you to read it here, after all, you paid for it:  http://www.volusia.org/government/waverly.stml

Let’s face it, even if you didn’t have direct knowledge of the source of cash contributions to your campaign – or how those benches with your smiling visage sprouted out of the ground – it’s just, well, embarrassing to have to say so publicly.  Right?

Was it fair?  I don’t know.

Was it necessary?  Probably.

Did it accomplish anything?  Hell no.

Now, it appears turnabout is fair play.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal recently reported that former council chair candidate (and current School Board attorney) Ted Doran has served notice on Volusia County – and several current and former elected officials – that he, and former Chairman Jason Davis, among others, plan to sue their collective eyeballs out.

For what?  I’m still not sure – something about “privacy” and the council’s refusal to take the good advice of their attorney, Dan Eckert, who recommended against this cockamamie inquiry in the first place.

One thing I’m pretty certain of:  You can bet your bippy when all is said and done, a whole lot of our hard-earned tax dollars will be pissed away to various attorneys, settlements, judgments, etc.

And absolutely nothing will change.

In my view, what would become known as the “Waverley matter” gave Volusia voters a fleeting glimpse into the true character of certain elected officials – and the shadowy world of local campaign financing, where hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in contributions – often originating from the same uber-wealthy political insiders using their corporations, associates and subsidiaries – has become the accepted norm.

In my view, the difference is, Jim Sotolongo was a degenerate thief – a perverse career criminal who intentionally ignored the rules and played our local “movers and shakers” like a fine fiddle.  The others – the power brokers and influential manipulators of a terribly flawed system – know the law, and how to play on the ragged edge of campaign finance laws where the real influence resides.

The methods may differ.  But the ends remain the same.

Stay tuned.  This one’s going to get interesting. . .

One thought on “Volusia Politics: Sorting the wheat from the chaff

  1. What the Daytona Beach News-Journal failed to report was that the audio recordings in the hands of Jon Kaney who deposed the witnesses no longer exist even though they were supplemental public records. That’s because they were destroyed after we asked for them to be preserved. Forty years after Watergate, only in Volusia County could something like this be allowed to happen. And Kaney walked away wih $150,000 in his pocket to boot…

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