SPRING HILL — A Citrus County man is alleging that Republican incumbent Rep. Jimmie T. Smith was complicit in a scheme to place a Democrat on the ballot to take votes away from independent candidate Nancy Argenziano.
Jim Brunswick, a Floral City Democrat, claims Inverness attorney Bill Grant asked him to run for the House 34 seat solely to help Smith win a second two-year term by splitting the vote with Argenziano. Grant implied Brunswick would be personally compensated for running, Brunswick, 58, said.
Grant denied the allegations through his attorney. Smith issued a brief statement Thursday afternoon.
"At no time have I, or my campaign, interfered with the Democrats' selection of a candidate in the race for the State House," Smith said. "Nor have I asked anyone, at any time, to interfere with the Democrats' primary."
Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson said he is investigating, though he said encouraging someone to run as a foil is not in itself illegal.
"Where the line starts to draw is when I say, 'I want you to run in this election and we both realize it's a sham and I'm going to give you money,' " Simpson said. "What you're looking at is a really fuzzy part of the law."
Smith's district includes all of Citrus and a portion of Hernando County north of State Road 50 and east of the Suncoast Parkway. Brunswick, who made unsuccessful bids as a Democrat for Citrus County Commission in 2006 and 2010, supported Smith two years ago. He said he didn't consider participating in the scheme Grant proposed but didn't explicitly refuse during the phone conversation with him.
"I felt uncomfortable, but I'm not going to throw it back in his face," Brunswick said Wednesday during an informal news conference with Argenziano at a Homosassa Pizza Hut.
According to Brunswick, Grant recently represented him in a foreclosure dispute with Bank of America until Grant withdrew when the two men disagreed over legal fees. During the April phone call, Brunswick said, he told Grant his poor health and financial situation wouldn't allow him to run an expensive campaign.
Grant's response, according to Brunswick: "You will be taken care of, Jim." Brunswick said he took that as a cue to expect benefits beyond financial contributions to the campaign.
"Mr. Grant is prepared to dispute that in its entirety," said Dade City attorney A.R. "Chip" Mander. "We're ready to go to war."
Brunswick said he never called or met with Grant after that, but did call Smith "to find out what was going on." According to Brunswick, Smith told him they found another Democrat, a young man with a clean record who would take enough votes away from Argenziano to ensure Smith won. (Brunswick has four arrests in Florida, including two felony drug convictions in the 1980s).
That man, Brunswick says, was Robert Raymond Goocher, a 25-year-old Homosassa auto mechanic who jumped into the race shortly before the filing deadline by paying the qualifying fee. Lynn Dostal, the lone Democrat in the race, had announced his intention to suspend his campaign to support Argenziano, a former Republican state senator and Public Service Commission chairwoman with deep roots in Citrus.
Goocher did not appear to actively campaign, refusing to return calls from party officials and reporters, but he garnered thousands of dollars from political action groups. Many observers, including Dostal and Argenziano, concluded that Goocher was picked by Smith's supporters to split the vote.
Dostal reactivated his campaign and defeated Goocher in the primary, then dropped out two days later and supported Argenziano. The state Democratic Party also decided to support Argenziano.
Smith denied knowing Goocher when he filed to run. But two months earlier, Smith's office submitted an application from Goocher's father, Robert Alan Goocher, to the governor for consideration for appointment to the Citrus County Hospital Board. The elder Goocher owns Bob's Car Care in Inverness, where his son works.
Smith didn't address that specific appointment in his statement but said he needed to clarify some "confusion" caused by recent news reports.
"Any advancement of people for gubernatorial appointments was done (to ensure) the Governor had a list of highly qualified people to consider when filling positions important to our community," Smith said.
Argenziano said she contacted the State Attorney's Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation about a month ago after Brunswick came to her with the allegations. An FBI spokesman on Thursday would not confirm or deny an investigation.
Investigators should focus on the political committees that financed the Goocher campaign, Argenziano said. "Who earmarked this money?" she asked. "It's not a Bill Grant or a Jimmie Smith. I think it's higher in the Republican Party."