Discover more from Public Enemy Number 1
Politician Brian Haas disgraces the excellent investigators of the State's Attorney's Office in Nolte case
SAO investigators could easily verify if Rick Nolte spent $7,500-plus in fishy campaign expenditures on something other than criminal campaign operative James Dunn. Their boss does not want them to.
Correction: One sentence in the email version of this article accidentally referred to “felonies” rather than “felony” in discussing Nolte’s consent order. I have corrected it in the online version.
Neither 10th Circuit State’s Attorney Brian Haas nor Polk Sheriff Grady Judd want to determine if Ron DeSantis-endorsed Polk School Board Member Rick “T.I.T.S.” Nolte cheated to narrowly win his seat in August 2022.
Like the rest of us, Haas and Judd know, through the Florida Elections Commission, that Nolte has now confessed to committing a bunch of misdemeanors and a felony by accepting cash as donations from himself and others.
Haas’ office office announced last week that it would not prosecute these misdemeanors and a felony because Nolte supposedly had no intent to commit them.
In saying that, Haas and Judd completely ignore what they, like the rest of us, do not know: did four suspicious Nolte campaign expenditures made prior to July 1 actually purchased “signs” ($2,171); “marketing” ($1,012); “shirts” ($2,718.67) and “shirts” ($1,664)?
Together, those four expenditures total $7,567, which is almost exactly the same amount as the $7,500 fee Nolte’s allied School Board candidates paid arch-criminal campaign consultant James Dunn to run their campaigns by the end of June 2022.
Additional weird payments to some of the same vendors continued after June 30.
Haas and Judd insist on ignoring these facts. For whose benefit?
Nolte, who has already admitted to multiple criminal campaign violations, denies using Dunn.
Haas and Judd take Nolte’s denial completely at his high-powered election lawyer Richard Coates’ word, despite knowing these facts:
Haas’ office is currently prosecuting James Dunn for misdemeanor election crimes — illegal campaign texts — against School Board Member Lisa Miller.
One of Nolte’s allied candidates, Terry Clark, said Nolte was using Dunn as his campaign manager in an email his supporters.
Dunn created a PAC on June 13, 2022 naming Nolte as one of the candidates he was working for.
Nolte attended and participated in at least one campaign event organized and promoted by James Dunn.
One of Nolte’s “shirts” purchases went to a company called Summit Printing in Kansas City, Missouri that does not sell shirts. Two of the other payments — for “marketing” and “signs” — also went to Summit. A fourth, also for “shirts,” went to a local firm called Ligon Marketing with close ties to the former CCDF, which brought Dunn to Florida to help its candidates.
Nolte has sense “amended” these expenditures so incomprehensibly that it would drive a forensic accountant to drink. Among other things, he now says the “shirts” with shirtless Summit was actually “signs.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
You can see the back-up for each of these facts in the links to the article and timeline that follow.
Dear Election Police: make Rick Nolte account for $7,567.39 of "shirt," "sign," and "marketing" campaign spending
Where did Nolte’s $11,669.20 worth of shirts and signs go, SAO?
Here are some funny fact comparisons to illustrate the absurdity of Nolte’s reported spending:
Nolte and I raised about the same amount of money overall — $42,970 for me in 2020, $43,847 for him in 2022.
In my 2020 campaign, I spent $2,076.75 for signs from one vendor in Orlando. I spent $214 on one vendor for campaign shirts; and I received one $200 in-kind contribution for shirts.
According to Nolte’s final amended campaign reports, Nolte spent $9,128 on signs with two vendors and $2,540 on shirts with three vendors. Prior to amending, he said he spent $6,410.03 on signs and $5,259.17 on shirts, including $2,718 with company that didn’t sell shirts.
No matter how he slices it, Nolte spent 500 percent more on signs and shirts than I did; and I am certain I had many more signs and shirts deployed than Nolte, based on close observation of both campaigns.
So where did all that merchandise go?
SAO leadership should allow its investigators to ask and answer that question. But it won’t.
Nolte *himself* says he doesn’t know if he bought “signs”, “marketing”, and “shirts” from Summit
Remarkably, Nolte himself told reporter Kimberly Moore last year that he has no idea what he spent the “Summit” money on. He blamed it on his son, Ren.
Nolte is a sitting elected school board member. He has never made any other public explanation or apology to voters about any of this. He has only signed an FEC consent order documenting misdemeanors and a felony and had somebody “amend” his campaign finance reports with gibberish. He has a behaved like a defendant, not a responsible elected official.
And yet, for perhaps the first time in its history, the 10th Circuit State’s Attorney’s Office is acting like the Public Defender’s Office in its aggressive public defense of Nolte.
Seriously, read Chief Assistant State Attorney Jacob Orr’s stirring defense of Nolte’s innocence. I’ll post it at the bottom of this article.
Bryan Stevenson, of “Just Mercy” fame, may never have argued so poignantly for a man’s exoneration as Jacob Orr does Nolte’s. Leo Schofeld should be so lucky.
Key sentence from Orr: “All contributions that were accepted and reported would have been appropriate if the contributor wrote a check instead of using cash.”
This is exactly like saying: the crime would not have been a crime if it wasn’t a crime.
And Orr, like Judd and Haas, completely ignores Nolte’s campaign spending, his relationship to Dunn, and whether the two connect at all to the cash misdemeanors and felony.
Remember when the SAO investigated — and cleared — me and Kay Fields for a nonsense Sunshine Law complaint?
The State’s Attorney’s Office was not always so committed to not knowing if public officials did illegal things — even when the accusation was vanishingly minor.
Shortly after my School Board election in 2016, I had a brief scheduling/agenda-related email exchange with Board Member Kay Fields, who was Board Chair at the time. I was trying to respect the guidance of the Florida School Board Association’s guidance not to ambush the chair in a meeting. I made the exchange public myself because I thought the public would be interested in the issue and I wanted to keep them and reporters aware of its status.
Someone saw the exchange, complained that it was a Sunshine Law violation to the The Ledger, and prompted me to report the “violation” myself to Brian Haas, who had also just been elected.
Haas assigned Beverly Cone to investigate the “non-criminal” complaint. Cone was one of the key investigators who had documented the abusive and corrupt behavior of several Lakeland Police Officers in the 2013-ish scandal, the aftermath of which transformed that department for the better. I have great respect for Cone’s tough, thorough work in that investigation.
Cone cleared me and Kay Fields and released a brief report. Here is The Ledger story about it. Key paragraph — and then my reaction:
"After a review of the email exchange, the apparent purpose of the emails was Mr. Townsend's desire to arrange for public comment on an issue coming before the school board in the near future," wrote State Attorney's Office investigator Beverly Cone. "The discussion was purely procedural as there was no substantive discussion of the issue itself."
The two board members could have faced a non-criminal infraction punishable by a $500 fine if the State Attorney's Office had opted to purse the complaint.
"They showed great common sense," Townsend of the State Attorney's Office.
The SAO did far far more investigation and public service in this nonsense civil Sunshine Law violation question than it has for Rick Nolte and all his shenanigans. And I was pleased and grateful for the scrutiny and clearance.
Investigators who are much better than their political leadership
Cone’s professionalism and competence is typical of my experience with State’s Attorney’s investigators — both as an observer/citizen and as a more active participant/subject in the last decade or so.
Here are a few examples in addition to the Sunshine Law matter.
The LPD scandal
The actual investigative narrative made clear that this wasn’t just a prurient sex scandal, as the New York Daily News portrayed it. Rather, it detailed a culture of abuse and impunity centered on a very vulnerable woman, who had been a long-term victim of sexual abuse as a girl. The leadership changes that emerged from the scandal made the department far better in the years after the scandal.
The K12/John Small self-dealing school district scandal
In 2018, when I was a School Board member, former Superintendent Jackie Byrd refused to tell me or the public how her deputy superintendent managed to set up an illegal multi-million deal with online school giant K12 before he went to work for them — without ever bringing the deal before the School Board for approval. After a Polk school official recognized the deal as illegal and refused to pay it, Byrd also refused to tell me why K12 kept trying to collect on that illegal deal for months. So I asked Brian Haas to find out the full story. Full background here.
Investigator Chad McConchie did a very thorough job, including interviewing Jackie Byrd. Haas and McConchie reviewed the findings with me in a private meeting. Haas thanked me for bringing what he considered a serious matter to his attention. McConchie told me that an unnamed K12 employee had collected a commission on this illegal deal. And he said that deputy superintendent-turned-K12 employee John Small — the key figure in the scandal — would not sit for an interview and K12 would not require him to.
Brian Haas then released a public statement clearing everyone involved and reporting none of those same damning details he and McConchie told me in private about the deal. This is when I first began to have personal doubts about Brian Haas as a man and public official.
More harassing Sunshine Law stuff
This sort of runs together on me. But at various times, various anonymous people made harassing complaints about Sunshine Law violations by School Board members based on nothing. There was one formal anonymous, written complaint that Haas’ office decided to investigate, if I remember correctly. We had to turn over text and phone records. But it didn’t go anywhere because there was no actual allegation to investigate and nothing to even consider. I don’t think the exoneration even rose to the level of a report or finding. It all just died without really being alive — again, more good common sense from investigators.
The James Dunn investigation
Under the prosecutorial oversight of veteran Assistant State’s Attorney Brad Copley, who seems to me the only serious senior lawyer at the SAO, investigator David Lopez has done remarkable work on arch-criminal, twice convicted felon campaign manager James Dunn and his alleged misdemeanor campaign crimes against School Board Lisa Miller.
Here is some background on that.
Why investigate and prosecute GOP operative James Dunn, but ignore Ron DeSantis-endorsed Rick Nolte?
The idea that this aggressive prosecution can happen in the same office where senior political prosecutors have made themselves Nolte’s public defense team is … extraordinary.
Lazy, incompetent public excuses about Nolte’s case from SAO and Sheriff
It’s bad enough that Haas and Judd have exhibited such selective political favoritism in their actions. But their offices have compounded it with false statements doubling as excuses for not investigating.
Jacob Orr included what appears to be a blatant fact error in his Nolte defense brief by writing the following. Note the bold.
The excessive amounts were refunded prior to the election.
There is absolutely zero evidence or indication that this is true. The currently available public information says it’s likely false.
I first wrote about Nolte’s illegal cash contributions the day after the August 23rd election, on August 24th, 2022 after someone brought them to my attention. And I did so only as a small part of this article. Two days after that, Nolte wrote a letter dated Aug. 26th to the Supervisor of Elections Office in which he acknowledged the misdemeanor violations and asked for advice on what to do. He said he had returned $50 in cash to each of the excessive cash donors. But he did not say when. His campaign reports show no hint that he did anything to actively address the illegal cash issue until after the election. The FEC consent order he signed does not say when he gave back the excess cash.
If Orr knows the dates of cash refunds, he should say how. Did investigators interview each of these donors? Did they or Nolte provide receipts or documentation? If so, why has the SAO not interviewed Ren Nolte or Summit Printing?
Moreover, Florida Elections Commission Executive Director Tim Vaccaro directly contradicted Sheriff’s Office Spokesman Scott Wilder, who told reporter Gary White that the PCSO would not investigate Nolte because state agencies enforce campaign laws.
Vaccaro told me that the FEC has “concurrent jurisdiction” with local law enforcement — and nothing stops local law enforcing from investigating and enforcing the law.
Vaccaro also told me that the FEC is designed to resolve complaints — and that it essentially takes whatever a lawyer says about his or her client at face value.
Thus, without access to Nolte’s receipts and sworn statements from his vendors, the FEC just took his lawyer’s word, based on Nolte’s word, that the fishy expenditures were not fishy.
Anyway, here is Jacob Orr’s extended public defense of Nolte. Laugh at it …
Please find the final order from the Florida Elections Commission regarding allegations against Rick Nolte attached. The Commission has found that, during the campaign, Nolte accepted cash contributions in excess of the $50.00 maximum. These contributions were discovered because Nolte reported them during his regular campaign reporting. When informed of the maximum, Nolte’s campaign refunded the amounts that exceeded the $50.00 maximum. After reviewing the matter, the Florida Elections Commission has determined that Nolte shall pay a civil penalty for this violation.
There is no criminal case to prosecute in this matter. All contributions that were accepted and reported would have been appropriate if the contributor wrote a check instead of using cash. The source of all the funds were reported and published on the Supervisor of Elections’ website. The excessive amounts were refunded prior to the election. There is no evidence that Nolte ever concealed the source of any funds or the identity of the contributor. There is no evidence that Nolte received any contributions that exceeded lawful limits if given via check or credit card. The largest contribution at issue was from Nolte himself. There is no law limiting the amount candidates can contribute to their campaign. He wrote a check payable to cash and contributed that cash when he should have written the check payable to his campaign. He corrected the error. There is evidence of sloppy accounting; however, there is no evidence of criminal activity.
And then remember, by doing nothing, Judd and Haas empower this guy to roam the halls of your daughter’s middle school and get paid — by you — for it.