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Illegal robocalls targeting Druzbick may be from out of state

BROOKSVILLE — Investigators are looking to the West Coast to find out who was behind the anonymous, illegal robocalls that urged voters to dump County Commissioner John Druzbick.

Someone local likely hired an out-of-state company to send the calls to Hernando County voters ahead of the Aug. 14 primary election, said Hernando sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Kraft. The calls lacked an identifying disclaimer required by Florida law.

Kraft initially suspected that a Los Angeles-based company called Pacific Telecom Communications Group had the answer. Registered as a public utility in at least three states, the company owns blocks of phone numbers used by telemarketing companies to make outgoing calls.

The Sheriff's Office sent subpoenas to the company's chief executive, Steve Hamilton, requesting records that could lead investigators to the person or people responsible for the calls, Kraft said. Hamilton, in turn, referred Kraft to another company.

Kraft has sent a subpoena to that company, which he declined to name, citing the open investigation.

"Hamilton's company was involved, but they're not the final stop," Kraft said.

The calls, made in late July to residents throughout the county, featured a recorded message by a male voice with a bit of a Southern twang.

"I'm sorry I missed you," the voice said. "I'm a citizen of Hernando County. Please don't vote for John Druzbick for another four years. He has voted three times for a tax increase.

"Hernando County has the second-highest unemployment in the state," the man continued. "John Druzbick has done nothing to help our struggling community. Don't vote for John Druzbick. Thank you."

Florida law requires that calls supporting or opposing a candidate identify the persons or organizations sponsoring them by stating either "paid for by" or "paid for on behalf of." Violating the law is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

With today's technology, someone can record a message and send it via email to a company that then sends out the calls to a designated block of households, Kraft said.

"Anybody could have done this with a computer in Hernando County," he said.

It's unclear if or when the subpoenas will result in helpful information, Kraft said. A company in another state is not required by law to honor a Florida subpoena.

If detectives do get evidence leading them to the local connection, the Sheriff's Office would likely turn over the investigation to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement because of the political nature of the case, Kraft said.

Even then, he noted, the investigation might not result in an arrest because it could be difficult to prove that the party responsible willfully violated the law.

Kraft estimates he has spent about six hours on the investigation.

The robocalls did not mention Druzbick's Republican primary opponent, Jason Sager, who told the Times in July that he wasn't aware of the calls and that his campaign was using only live volunteers to call voters.

Sager went on to win the primary by eight votes. He will face Democrat Diane Rowden, no-party candidate Greg Sheldon and write-in candidate Tanya Marsh in the general election. Both Rowden and Sheldon said in July that they weren't aware of the calls until contacted by a Times reporter.

Weeki Wachee resident and longtime Druzbick supporter Bob Kanner filed a complaint with the Sheriff's Office after receiving the automated call. Kanner said he has realistic expectations about how far local investigators will go.

"I don't want to take detectives away from something much more important than this," Kanner said. "(The calls) did stop after the story hit the newspaper, so that's a positive."

Druzbick said he hopes the Sheriff's Office continues to be aggressive.

"So at least it can send a message to people in the future who may want to do something like that," Druzbick said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431.

Illegal robocalls targeting Druzbick may be from out of state 09/05/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 7:48pm]
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