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FBI bribery arrests shake up sleepy Levy County

For more than a century, the Yearty family has been as much a fixture of Levy County as its rolling pastures and quiet country highways.

The Yearty ranch in Gulf Hammock has been W.S. "Sammy" Yearty's home for 62 years. His grandfather was a county commissioner. So was his father.

Thirty years ago, Yearty was appointed to the commission. Every time the short, stocky Democrat has run for re-election, he's won. In a county where local government is the largest employer, he's like the chief executive of a company town.

"They call it Yearty County," said Al Macri, a political opponent who tried twice to oust him.

Nov. 5 should have been a day of triumph for the owlish Yearty, re-elected with 62 percent of the vote. Instead, to the shock of nearly everyone in Levy County, the FBI arrested Yearty.

A federal indictment said he'd taken payoffs from a developer.

From the courthouse in Bronson to the boat docks on Cedar Key, word of Yearty's arrest had tongues wagging. Even more startling: The FBI nabbed another commissioner, Tony Parker, and two officials from Cross City. A month before, agents had handcuffed three former officials from neighboring Dixie County.

That's seven current and former officials from two rural counties accused of taking bribes.

"They really tore up them good ol' boys," sighed Lindon Lindsey, the unofficial historian of Levy County and a longtime friend of Yearty's.

• • •

Levy County has seen scandals before, but there has never been anything like this, Lindsey said, because Yearty's roots run so deep. Before his last campaign, the commissioner boasted, "My ancestors settled here before Florida was a state."

Yearty is a pillar of the Otter Creek Baptist Church. He and his wife, Evelyn, serve on the board of the Christian school where his daughter is assistant principal. His son-in-law preaches at a Williston church that ministers to cowboys.

Money is usually in short supply in Levy County, one of the few places in Florida untouched by the recent real estate frenzy. About 45,000 people call it home, 5,000 more than lived there in 2000. In that time Citrus County, to its south, gained 20,000 residents.

Although Levy has 52 miles of coastline, there is virtually no development there because most of it belongs to national or state parks, preserves and refuges.

The land isn't the only thing that's been preserved for generations. The county has long been run by a few powerful families like Yearty's, said Samuel Mutch, a lawyer who has handled civil rights cases there.

Then, in December 2006, Progress Energy picked a Levy County site for its new nuclear plant, spending $47-million for 3,100 acres. Suddenly, "for sale" signs sprouted along U.S. 19. There was talk of new townhomes for plant employees. Change was in the air.

And then the developer from Fort Lauderdale showed up with wads of cash.

• • •

Charles W. Gilbert met the FBI agent two years ago.

Gilbert, a Republican state committeeman, has known Yearty since childhood. Their fathers served on the County Commission together. So did their grandfathers.

Since Yearty took office, Gilbert has been his most vocal critic. Twice, Gilbert says proudly, Yearty ordered deputies to escort him out of meetings.

"He's a good guy," Gilbert said. "It's just that the power went to his head."

Four years ago, Gilbert complained to state ethics officials. He said Yearty ordered county employees to build Yearty's daughter a house and used county equipment to maintain his driveway.

Yearty convinced an investigator that the employees built the house on their own time. The driveway had been maintained as a county road since Yearty's father was a commissioner. The ethics complaint was dismissed.

Gilbert said he has thought for years that Yearty was too cozy with contractors. He never complained to the Justice Department. But then an FBI agent asked him about Levy County corruption.

"I told him, 'You rang my bell!' '' recalled Gilbert, who was happy to tell them his suspicions.

• • •

Yearty and Parker have pleaded not guilty. Neither Yearty nor his attorney, former gubernatorial candidate Rod Smith, returned a reporter's calls.

A federal prosecutor says Yearty's arrest is part of "a wide-ranging investigation." That's about all she would say.

The indictments refer to the man handing out the bribes as "an individual representing himself to be Sean Michaels on behalf of Gideon Development." Gideon Development exists on paper. It incorporated in 2005. State records show a Sean Michaels listed as a company manager.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Rhew, when asked if Michaels was actually an undercover FBI agent, said, "I can neither confirm nor deny that."

What if a reporter called the company's number? Would Michaels call back? The prosecutor laughed. "You could try that," she said. (It didn't work.)

First, the mystery man paid a building and zoning inspector $1,200 to persuade Dixie County Commissioner "Big John" Driggers and a colleague to vote his way on zoning matters, the indictment says. Driggers — whose most enduring achievement was erecting a 6-ton granite replica of the Ten Commandments at the courthouse — and the other commissioner allegedly took $6,000 in payoffs before they lost re-election bids.

Next, Michaels targeted Cross City, where, the indictment says, he bought the cooperation of a council member for $1,500 and a town superintendent for $500. Then he made his move on Levy County, giving Yearty a $100 gift card, the indictment says.

On Nov. 14, 2007, the indictment says, Yearty met an unnamed person for lunch to "discuss favorable votes and received an all-expense paid trip to New York City." A month later, it says, Yearty and Parker had dinner with someone at a Gainesville Hilton "and accepted $10,000."

Later, the indictment says, Yearty acknowledged taking the trip with Parker. He said he and the other commissioner couldn't have traveled to New York "without someone else paying."

• • •

Until Yearty and Parker's case is resolved, Gov. Charlie Crist has suspended them. The Levy County Commission must make decisions — including a recent vote on the nuclear plant site — with just three members.

The new chairwoman, Commissioner Nancy Bell, said one thing baffles her. The commission never voted on any Gideon Development project. It was never on any agenda.

The prosecutor, choosing her words carefully, said that the indictment says "that these fellows took the money with the intent to influence votes, whether they actually did it or not."

Since Yearty's arrest, the grand jury has indicted two more people: the executive director of Levy County's economic development agency, and Dixie County's former county attorney.

Rhew would not say whether there will be more charges.

Times staff writer Asjylyn Loder and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS

Nine indicted

Those indicted so far in the federal investigation are:

• W.S. "Sammy Yearty, Levy County commissioner since 1978

• Robert A. "Tony" Parker, Levy County commissioner

• Pam Blair, Levy County Enterprise Zone Development Agency executive director

• Marcellus Dawson, Cross City council member and former police chief

• Johnny Miller Green, Cross City town superintendent

• John Lee "Big John" Driggers, former Dixie County Commission chairman

• Alton J. Land, former Dixie County commissioner

• Willie D. "Billy" Keen Jr., former Dixie County building and zoning official

• Joseph T. Lander, former Dixie County attorney

FBI bribery arrests shake up sleepy Levy County 01/03/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 4:36pm]
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