Illegal campaigners should be held accountable for their blatant attempts to game the political process with deceit and obfuscation. Toward that end, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office must not allow its investigation of anonymous phone calls in a County Commission primary to drift into cold-case territory.
The calls, urging Republican voters to oust incumbent Commissioner John Druzbick, failed to include the state-required disclaimer identifying who had paid for and approved the campaign tactic. Druzbick lost the Aug. 14 primary by eight votes to challenger Jason Sager, who denied any knowledge of the calls.
Florida law requires an identification disclaimer because of a high-profile incident 18 years ago.
Then, the re-election campaign of Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles authorized deceptive calls to seniors, proclaiming Republican Jeb Bush a tax cheat who opposed Social Security and Medicare. The callers falsely told voters they represented two independent organizations, but one was fictitious and the other was a Republican group with no connection to the calls. The Chiles campaign attempted to cover up its role before coming clean a year later under subpoena from a Senate committee investigating the calls.
As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Tony Marrero reported, Hernando sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Kraft traced the anti-Druzbick calls to an out-of-state company, but he is awaiting response to a subpoena. The voice recording, however, could have originated in Hernando County and simply been emailed to the outside entity to process the robocalls to local voters.
The scripted call from a male voice stated:
"I'm a citizen of Hernando County. Please don't vote for John Druzick for another four years. He has voted three times for a tax increase. Hernando County has the second-highest unemployment in the state. John Druzbick has done nothing to help our struggling community. Don't vote for John Druzbick.''
The Sheriff's Office, facing potential personnel reductions due to looming budget cuts, certainly has competing priorities, particularly since an election law violation is only a misdemeanor.
However, if no one is held responsible for circumventing the state election law, it creates the very real threat of an open season of illegal campaigning against all local candidates.
Sager, meanwhile, shouldn't remain silent. One of the cornerstones of his campaign has been criticism of what he calls a lack of transparency of the county budgeting process. If he's sincere about promoting good government, he should extend the same sentiment to the political process and demand transparency from his own supporters.
Accountability standards shouldn't fluctuate just because one of your political benefactors is a law-breaker.