Irony may be key witness in Sheldon residency trial
Even by the up-is-down, dogs-and-cats-living-together nature of Florida politics, George Sheldon has got to be shaking his head at the irony of today’s 1:30 p.m. hearing before Leon County Circuit Judge James Hankinson.
Sheldon is one of two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General. The winner of the Aug. 26 primary will then face Republican incumbent Pam Bondi.
Since late July, Sheldon has been trying to put behind him what most people would consider a technicality over paperwork. Notified by the Florida Bar that his license had lapsed, Sheldon appealed and said he should qualify for an exemption. To qualify for that exemption, Sheldon declared that he had been living out of state while working in his $179,000 job with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
His Democratic opponent, Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said this raised “serious questions” about his residency.
Turns out, the Florida Constitution requires AG candidates to reside in the state the preceding seven years before taking office. Sheldon dismissed the concerns as political, saying he kept his homestead exemption on his Tallahassee home. His driver’s license and voter registration all peg him as a Florida resident.
“This is a political issue, not a legal issue,” Sheldon said. “My situation is the same as with members of Congress, members of the military, ambassadors, and others who perform service to their country in Washington or overseas, while Florida remains their home.”
But last week, supporters of Thurston, keeping the issue alive, filed a lawsuit against Sheldon and Secretary of State Ken Detzner alleging that the residency question was enough to throw him off the ballot.
For those not affiliated with either the Thurston or Sheldon campaigns who have read this far, thanks. Here’s the irony I promised in the lede.
Thurston has had well-publicized problems with his own residency, including this truly amazing gotcha piece last year by WPLG 10 reporter Bob Norman. Did Thurston live in his Fort Lauderdale House District? Norman made a convincing case that he didn’t.
The ensuing publicity convinced John Thompson, a registered Republican in Coral Gables to file a complaint with the Florida Bar in June 2013. Thompson is known for filing complaints with the Bar, and was disbarred in 2008 for making false statements to tribunals, so maybe he’s not the best one to lodge a complaint. He said he hasn’t heard anything back about the complaint.
Still, he was surprised to hear that Thurston has succeeded in raising questions about the residency status of his opponent.
“What a fantastic technique,” Thompson said. “You have serious residency issues so you raise bogus questions about your opponent.”
Sheldon, whose legal team tried to dismiss the lawsuit as frivolous, will attend today’s hearing, and is willing to take the stand if needed.
He even has an affidavit from Michelle Francis, an accreditation manager with the Florida Bar, stating that Sheldon could have remained a permanent resident of Florida while qualifying for the non-resident exemption.
"We’re hoping he will make a ruling and put an end to this nonsense," said Sheldon's attorney, Ron Meyer. "This needs to be resolved. We’re 11 days away from the election."
But in another twist, Christopher Benjamin, the attorney for the plaintiff, Jessica Elliot, will be seeking a continuance.
Turns out a St. Augustine resident named John Hankinson, brother of James Hankinson, the judge, (!), has contributed $1,616 to Sheldon's campaign, including $916 on March 29 for food. That usually means Hankinson didn't just contribute, but also hosted a meet-and-greet.
Judge Hankinson disclosed this on Thursday, but Benjamin seeks to recuse Hankinson from the case, claiming a bias. That will take more time. That means this case could still be alive by the time Democratic voters head to the polls on Aug. 26. Will it be enough to give them doubts about Sheldon? Thurston supporters hope so.