Monday, April 23, 2018
Public safety

Inquiry into Hernando County election robocalls comes to end

BROOKSVILLE — The Southern-twanged voice on the robocall sounded local and said he was a citizen of Hernando County, but the hunt for the call's source eventually led to the Philippines.

The search ended there, too, with the mystery still intact.

The Hernando Sheriff's Office has suspended its investigation into the recorded calls made last July urging voters to dump incumbent county Commissioner John Druzbick.

The investigation was difficult enough after the evidence led sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Kraft to California and Oregon. But compelling someone to help in an island nation in Southeast Asia some 9,000 miles from Brooksville?

"The degree of the crime would not warrant the amount of resources and expenses involved," Kraft said.

Florida law requires that calls supporting or opposing a political 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.

The investigation offers a glimpse into the tangled digital path that a robocall can take before it rings a phone in Hernando County.

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. Hamilton offered little help.

Kraft then sent a subpoena to an attorney listed as the registered agent for a company in Oregon that is apparently linked to Hamilton's firm, if not the same entity. The attorney directed Kraft to the owner, who never responded. The owner's son, who lists his address in Belize, referred the sergeant to a man in the Philippines.

That man, who is listed as a call center consultant, said he would help, but no longer had access to account information.

Kraft suspects that the local person or people who wanted to torpedo Druzbick's chances used a service that allows clients to record their own message and send it by computer to a company that routes the calls to a targeted area.

"I'm 99 percent sure the call originated in Hernando, but I believe my last and most viable lead was from the company in the Philippines that hosted the robocall," Kraft said. "I just didn't have the legal power to force cooperation internationally."

The call rang phones shortly in the weeks before one of the closest elections in county history.

"I'm sorry I missed you," the recorded voice on the call 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."

The robocalls did not mention Druzbick's Republican primary election 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, but lost to Democrat Diane Rowden in the general election. Rowden and no-party candidate Greg 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 praised the agency's efforts.

"I feel a little bit guilty it cost the taxpayers money, but a crime was committed here," Kanner said. "Hopefully, because the sheriff took it seriously, it won't happen again in two years."

Druzbick agreed, though he had hoped someone would be caught to serve as an example.

"Not that it would do anything to the past election," he said, "but it sure would help people in the future."

Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.

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