Why investigate and prosecute GOP operative James Dunn, but ignore Ron DeSantis-endorsed Rick Nolte?
As the SAO charges Dunn for misdemeanor campaign crimes, Rick Nolte's self-declared campaign felony and dubious campaign spending claims remain unexplained.
I want to start this by complimenting Polk State Attorney investigator David Lopez for his thorough and detailed 23-page investigative report on James Dunn’s criminal campaign behavior. (I’m going to try to figure out a way to make it linkable; but not today.)
I have been — and remain — very critical of the senior political leadership of the Polk/10th Circuit State Attorney’s Office. But my experience with ground level SAO investigators — dating to the Lakeland Police Department scandal of ~2013 and continuing through my time as an elected School Board member — has been excellent. I find their work consistently outstanding, thorough, and fair.
Lopez’s report will serve as a cautionary tale for any gross grifter who seeks to pervert Polk elections in future years. It’s an important document. I salute his diligence.
Lopez’s work is so detailed that I’m still trying to process it. More to come on that. But here is The Ledger’s solid article summarizing it.
Given the talent and professionalism on display in David Lopez’s Dunn report, I feel certain, if his political bosses allow it, he is capable of asking Rick Nolte if he used cash bills to give himself a $5,200 campaign loan or contribution. Doing so, which Nolte reported doing exactly a year ago yesterday, would be a campaign felony.
One year later, Rick Nolte still has not explained how he came to report a felony contribution/loan to himself of $5,200 in cash. I filed a formal complaint with the pathetic Florida Elections Commission months ago about Nolte’s apparent felony, on August 29.
The FEC has laughably dismissed other, later complaints against Nolte I filed (more on that in a second). But they’re having a hard time making the $5,200 cash felony complaint disappear into thin air — even with high-priced Republican election lawyer Richard Coates working this for Nolte. I’m sure it’s not for lack of effort.
Let David Lopez do his job. He’s good at it.
But this article is not primarily about the $5,200 cash felony report. It’s mostly about the uninvestigated connections between James Dunn — now formally accused of campaign crime in Polk County, Florida — and Ron DeSantis-endorsed Rick Nolte, who appears legally bulletproof.
I feel certain investigator David Lopez can conclusively establish what happened or didn’t happen between Nolte and Dunn and Nolte’s weird vendors — if Lopez’s bosses allow him to. If I was Rick Nolte, I certainly would want him to, if I had nothing to hide.
Lopez has established that by the end of June 2020, two of the three gross Polk County, Florida Republican book-banner School Board candidates had openly paid twice-convicted, Texas-based federal felon James Dunn’s Black Republicans of Brazoria County “charity” $7,500 to run their campaigns.
Here’s what right wing personality Candace Owens said about Dunn and BRBC a few months before in February of 2022.
The third gross book-banner candidate was Ron DeSantis-endorsed Rick “T.I.T.S”Nolte. Lopez’s report quoted Terry Clark telling him: “We work as a team. Jill and Rick and I.”
Nevertheless, Nolte claims not to have hired Dunn.
But Nolte did make four strange, vague campaign expenditures totaling $7,567.39 by the end of June. Lopez did not investigate that rather remarkable coincidence, according to his report.
Lopez only established that Nolte met Dunn in June; had a lawyer review a potential contract with him; and then claimed to have avoided hiring Dunn because he found him “braggadocious,” according to Lopez’s report.
I only figured out Nolte’s $7,567.39 in weird spending and the $5,200 cash donation a few months later, in August.
That’s when I publicly urged investigators, either with the Florida Elections Commission (through a formal complaint) or the Polk State Attorneys Office or Sheriff’s Office, to verify that Nolte actually spent the $7,567.39 on the companies and services/products he claimed to. No one has done that. Full documentation of my suspicions below:
I am suspicious of these payments for three big reasons:
The end of June timing of the total $7,567.39 amount, which coincided with the end of June payments by Nolte’s book-banner allies Jill Sessions and Terry Clark totaling $7,500 each.
Three of the four strange, vague Nolte payments went to a company called Summit Printing of Kansas City, Missouri. They were for “shirts”, “signs”, and “marketing” respectively, according to Nolte’s campaign documentation. Those were the only descriptive words. It’s odd enough for a central Florida school board candidate to use a Kansas City company; but this company also doesn’t sell shirts. I confirmed that fact personally.
On July 8, Nolte’s book-banner ally candidate Terry Clark sent this email noting that Nolte was also “using” Dunn for campaign services. This email was also quite relevant to the State Attorney charges against Dunn for illegal texts.
To be fair, two of Nolte’s weird vague payments were reported in March and April. That would seem to pre-date Dunn’s entry into Polk politics.
However, we still don’t know exactly how and when Steve Maxwell, founder and CEO of the so-called County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF), met Dunn in Texas and decided to connect him to the campaigns here.
And then there is this, from Lakeland Now reporter Kim Moore, in which she tried to ask Nolte about his weird spending with out of town vendors:
Nolte also claimed he didn’t know about the Summit Printing expenses.
“I don’t know – that’s my son. I don’t know anybody out of state that does that. One of my committees did that,” Nolte said. He has said his son, Ren Nolte, worked for his campaign, along with Nolte’s daughter.
There is no indication in his report that David Lopez spoke to Ren Nolte. He should.
No effort to verify Nolte’s statements or expenditures
The Florida Elections Commission dismissed my Dunn-connected complaint against Nolte on Jan. 6, 2023. Here is one part of its reasoning. Note the sentence in bold at the end, which essentially declares that the FEC has to rely on other law enforcement to investigate any suspicious fact:
Complainant also suggested that Respondent employed Mr. James Dunn as a campaign manager but did not report expenditures associated with Mr. Dunn’s time.
[I take issue with the FEC’s phrasing there. I “suggested” the FEC investigate that possibility based on the three points above. I did not suggest an outcome — only a collection of suspicious facts needing further examination I lacked the power to compel as a private citizen. — from Billy]
Complainant attached an email from candidate Terry Clark dated July 8, 2022, noting that Mr. Clark had hired Mr. Dunn. The email stated that Respondent [Nolte] was also “using him [Dunn].” However, this allegation is based upon speculation and hearsay. Section 106.25(2), F.S., provides that a complaint must be based upon personal information other than hearsay.
For those reasons I find the complaint to be Legally Insufficient.
The FEC waved away the “shirts” payment issue by taking at face value Nolte’s claim that he meant to write “signs.” The FEC did not ask Nolte to produce:
Receipts for any of the expenditures.
Evidence of services or products purchased.
All of this makes fools, yet again, of State Attorney Brian Haas and Polk Sheriff Grady Judd. Remember what Polk Sheriff’s spokesman Scott Wilder told The Ledger’s Gary White in an article a while back about why the Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t investigate Nolte. Note the part in bold:
Since submitting the complaints about Nolte, Townsend has publicly questioned why the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office for the 10th Judicial Circuit have not taken action. Scott Wilder, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, said that PCSO is not investigating Nolte and that state agencies enforce campaign-finance laws.
[Perhaps the Sheriff’s Office considers the Polk/10th circuit State Attorney a state agency, rather than a local agency. That’s technically correct. But it’s not a statewide jurisdiction agency like FEC.]
In any event, contrary to Wilder’s statement, if Sheriff Judd and State Attorney Haas refuse to investigate a suspicious fact pattern, the FEC has taken the position in the Nolte case that it cannot act. Here’s a shorter, more vivid version of that, as it relates to investigating Nolte:
By investigating and charging Dunn, Haas’ office has now announced that it can enforce campaign finance laws in local Polk elections. And that makes the Nolte inaction questions — one of which involves a felony — all the more glaring.
Give me subpoena power/legal authority; and I’ll stop pestering you to do your jobs, elected law enforcement
I do not have subpoena power or police authority.
I cannot put people under oath or pain of false statement to law enforcement to determine if they did what they said they did. Rick Nolte is under no legal obligation to incriminate or explain himself. He could refuse to speak to investigators about his suspicious campaign activity, refuse to explain his spending, and refuse to produce evidence of what he bought.
But then the public should know that he refused.
And law enforcement should then use its investigative power to verify his expenditures. Election cheating by candidates is a serious, Democracy-damaging problem.
Nolte deserves no benefit of the doubt here. He is already on record cheating with his use of literal campaign cash. He had to return 10 $100 cash donations, which exceeded the legal $50 cap on cash. Above $5,000, it becomes a felony.
In the Dunn case, David Lopez has done the future voters of Polk County a great service by showing the State Attorney’s Office can and will expend great time and effort to punish and deter willfully, grossly illegal campaign behavior, even by Republicans.
But at this point, some Republicans are still off limits, which I suspect has a lot to do with this.
What do you think?
When Brian Haas lets David Lopez write the same high quality report about Rick Nolte — to clear him or implicate him — I’ll be the first to praise Brian Haas.
Until then, some Republicans remain more equal than the rest of us in Polk County.
Love your article!!! 👍