Shawna Vercher is a poised, articulate businesswoman who in many ways appears an ideal Democratic candidate in a tough battle for a state House seat in Pinellas County.
She's at ease in front of cameras and energetic enough to shake every hand in the room. Although she lost a $1.5 million court case and filed for bankruptcy, she has attempted to turn the setback into an advantage by writing a blistering book on the need to reform Florida's justice system.
"I'm not running away from this situation that happened," said Vercher, 37, of Clearwater. "From my perspective in the legal system I'm running on it."
But there's a problem with the story she tells on the campaign trail and in her book, A Fearless Voice: How a National Scandal Made Me an Advocate for Building a Better America.
Some say it's not true.
"It looks like it's a work of fiction," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who read a chapter at the request of the Tampa Bay Times.
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Vercher grew up in Texas, graduated from Florida State University, and has worked as a technology consultant for various Tampa Bay organizations and state government. She's also a pundit who has written for the Huffington Post, had a radio talk show and appeared on WTSP-Ch. 10 as a political analyst.
But she gained national publicity about four years ago after she arranged to publish a book, Personal Foul, by Tim Donaghy, a former NBA referee who got caught in a betting scandal. She helped prepare him for a 60 Minutes appearance and launched the book's nationwide sales.
But Donaghy later sued Vercher and her VTi Group, claiming she never gave him proceeds from the book. He won a $1.5 million judgment in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. The judgment prompted Vercher to file her bankruptcy, which is still pending.
At that point, many people would have set aside any political ambitions.
Not Vercher. She is in a three-way Democratic primary in House District 67, running against Steve Sarnoff, who works for the city of Clearwater, and Thomas Ryan, a dairy worker. The winner will face Republican Chris Latvala, the well-financed son of a state senator, or college student and veteran Christopher Shepard.
Vercher said she is appealing the verdict. "I wish that it didn't happen, but I'm proud at how I've weathered it," she said.
The whole experience, she said, "really caused me to have a drive to serve."
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In her book, Vercher slams Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell for ruling that she could not call witnesses because her attorneys missed a deadline. Her attorney says the other side was allowed to call witnesses, even though they also missed a deadline.
"We vastly underestimated the judge's determination to never let the facts of the case enter her courtroom," Vercher wrote.
In one of the more shocking passages, Vercher claims one of her attorneys, Carmen Vizcaino, saw the judge take a calculator into the jury room during deliberations.
Let me repeat that. The judge went into the room where the jury was deliberating… with a calculator. You know, in case they might possibly want to (hint, hint) work on calculating damages against me (wink, wink.)
And Vercher adds:
…there was no way to get around the power of persuasion of a judge, dressed in her robes, heading into that conference room to subtly suggest what the verdict needed to be.
Here in the United States of America, folks, when we fix our trials, we fix 'em good.
But the Times could not find anyone to confirm this account. Carmen Vizcaino, the attorney that Vercher says saw the incident, did not return multiple calls. Her law partner, Khurrum Wahid, said he did not see it. And while Wahid said "the judge did not really give us a fair trial," he would not go so far as to call it fixed: "No, I'm not making any allegations like that."
Vercher did not see Campbell enter the jury room, but she maintains she did see Campbell walking in that direction, and "I saw enough to know that it happened."
The judge could not discuss a case on appeal, said court spokesman Ron Stuart, who questioned Vercher's story.
"Like all judges I know and observe, Judge Campbell has a professional policy that she does not enter the jury room during deliberations, or any time the jury is present." If juries request calculators, a bailiff would generally be the person to deliver them, with approval from the judge and attorneys on both sides, he said.
Also, Stuart said, "If Ms. Vercher has any evidence of a trial being 'fixed,' that evidence should be presented immediately to the State Attorney or some other law enforcement agency."
In a recent interview, Vercher backed away from calling the case "fixed." The real problem, she claimed, was that the "case wasn't heard" because the judge wanted to get it done quickly.
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Vercher also claimed to police that one of her employees stole up to $50,000 from her business, the VTi Group, which was publishing the book by Donaghy, the former NBA referee. The employee did plead guilty in a previous grand theft case.
But even if the employee was stealing, it wouldn't change whether Vercher owed money to Donaghy.
The employee was an important witness in Donaghy's lawsuit against Vercher, so in that sense it could have impacted her credibility as a witness if she had been charged with a new crime.
Vercher went to Largo police with her accusations and asked them to arrest the employee.
In Vercher's telling, this exposes another failing of Florida's justice system. She wrote that the detective on the case, Lara Young, was not up to handling a complicated investigation. Vercher says the detective claimed to be overwhelmed and made plaintive comments such as, "You gave me so much to read, how was I supposed to look at every single thing?"
But the detective's report, obtained by the Times, was 113 pages, most of them single-spaced, with input from more than a dozen people, in addition to financial records, documents and recordings. The report finds the theft complaint "unfounded," partly because of "inconsistencies in the statements made by Vercher." The report also uncovered unorthodox business practices that made it difficult to prove any theft. In some cases, VTi Group employees were not paid when money was tight. The business sometimes paid some employees' personal expenses. In another twist, the employee Vercher accused of stealing used her personal accounts to pay business expenses.
Vercher told the Times on Friday that she still considers the Largo investigation insufficient: "Having 100 pages of nonsense and lies is not a thorough investigation."
The report also noted that Vercher raised as much as $20,000 through a charity event associated with Tampa's 2009 Super Bowl. The money was supposed to go to a charity called NFL YET, but it never received the money, the report said.
The detective, quoting an official with the charity, wrote: "They knew they had been duped," and they discussed filing a lawsuit. "However they didn't want negative publicity."
Vercher said Friday that she tried to give the charity money, but it was having organizational difficulties at the time and could not accept it. She said she gave the money to a different charity instead.
This gets no mention in her book. But an online bio listing her various positions does contain this line: National Football League Super Bowl Planning Committee.
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Unable to get Largo police to arrest her ex-employee, Vercher went to the State Attorney's Office. Her book says she called the office 10 times and didn't get a response, but that her husband called and got through immediately, because he's a man.
McCabe, the state attorney, called that story "b-------."
Vercher recently told the Times editorial board that she eventually met with a prosecutor who said, "There's no doubt in my mind that a crime has been committed — and these are his words — but Florida jurors are stupid and there's no way that I could explain this case to them."
McCabe said Vercher did not meet with one of his attorneys. She met with an investigator.
The investigator, in his report, concluded there was "insufficient evidence" to prosecute, partly because of the intermingling of business and personal expenses. He also said Vercher's allegations "lack jury appeal" because of other factors, including the civil suit against her, the NFL allegations and an outstanding $24,000 IRS bill.
The report doesn't conclude that the case was too complicated, McCabe said. It concludes there was no proof of a crime.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Curtis Krueger at [email protected] or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.