SPRING HILL — It's the shot still reverberating around Hernando County political circles.
One week after a candidates forum at Timber Pines, county politicos can't stop talking about how the sheriff's race turned ugly in front of residents of the retirement community.
The story about how challenger Luke Frazier, 23, spewed attack after attack at Sheriff Richard Nugent spread quickly. And a video of the forum obtained by the St. Petersburg Times shows why.
In his verbal assault, Frazier, a Democrat, labeled Nugent, a Republican, a liar and a criminal, and claimed he used his powerful office to quiet political opponents. Frazier provided no evidence to back his assertions.
Write-in candidate Marc Reusch made similar accusations of corruption, saying he doesn't expect his supporters to come forward because it means "putting your life in danger."
The comments left Nugent stunned and visibly shaken. After sternly rebuking Frazier, the sheriff abruptly left the stage as the audience gave him a partial standing ovation. Sitting in the audience, Nugent's wife, Wendy, broke down in tears.
"I had enough," the sheriff said in an interview this week. "I wasn't going to dignify sitting up on the stage with anyone of them any longer. … They trashed my integrity."
The question now is whether a repeat performance will come tonight when Nugent and Frazier are scheduled to meet again at a Regency Oaks candidates forum, set to begin at 7 p.m.
A video of the Timber Pines forum shows the event getting off to a rocky start.
In his opening statement, Reusch ominously asked the crowd, "How many people here believe that it's okay to be poisoned covertly in your home when you're sleeping? … Believe it or not, this is happening in Hernando County."
The crowd sat silent.
In an interview Thursday, Reusch said people are pumping toxic fumes into his home and business and said law enforcement refuses to investigate.
Frazier began his incessant attacks on the sheriff by saying the agency faces more than $70-million in pending lawsuits for violating people's constitutional rights. A cursory review of court records indicates that claim is wildly inflated.
Frazier did cite a number of legitimate problems in the Sheriff's Office, but exaggerated most of the details. For instance, he mentioned the incident when the sheriff's finance director crashed her car while apparently intoxicated but was not arrested at the scene; the cross-county chase involving 13 deputies who were later suspended; and how a veteran sheriff's lieutenant fudged time cards for 11 days he didn't work.
"I would never, ever allow the type of behavior, illegal activity and just absolute blatant disregard for the law that we have in the current department," Frazier said.
But the forum took its nastiest turn after a crowd member asked Frazier about his lengthy arrest record.
Frazier said his arrests, on charges including sexual battery and organized fraud, were bogus. He accurately noted that he was cleared in the majority of the cases, either by acquittal or prosecutors dropping or dismissing charges.
He was found guilty of criminal solicitation to shelter an unmarried minor and received a month in the county jail in January 2006. Later that year, he pleaded no contest to resisting an officer without violence. He paid a fine, and adjudication was withheld.
Even though all of the arrests occurred before the campaign season, Frazier, who ran unsuccessfully for the County Commission in 2004, accused the sheriff of trying to smear a political opponent.
"They've done everything and anything they can, and he will stop at nothing to discredit any person that will run against him," Frazier said. "Make no mistake, this man will lie, steal and do anything necessary to protect his position."
One person in the crowd is heard applauding while most hissed and some booed.
The questioner from the crowd then said, "Those are pretty serious allegations, Mr. Frazier."
"But they are fact, unfortunately," Frazier responded.
In Nugent's closing statement, he fired back. "I've run for office twice before, and this is absolutely unbelievable that someone would lie as much as this individual sitting at the end of the table," he said of Frazier. "The poor guy hasn't got a single thing right.
"I take offense to being called a liar and a cheat and a criminal," Nugent continued. "I've dedicated 36 years of my life to public service. … I can't imagine the drivel that comes out of certain individuals' mouths. I've never seen it."
When he finished, he left as the crowd applauded.
But Reusch, in his final remarks, didn't stop.
"The reason (the county) is screwed up is because one person has a death grip on everything that goes on," he said of Nugent. "I don't even expect that you would offer to support me in public as long as he is office because it is putting your life in danger."
Reusch said he meant what he said. As for Frazier's comments, he said, "I have to agree if I was the sheriff and someone said that to me, I would be angry."
Frazier could not be reached for comment.
Organizers for tonight's political forum said Frazier planned to attend, but not Reusch. Nugent said he still will appear.
"This is going past anything of decency in regard to the outrageous comments that were made," he said. "But we're going to continue on with our campaign."
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.