Florida voting rights group faced threats from white supremacists after Republicans' call for investigation

Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, says he had to hire lawyers and security experts.
Desmond Meade, executive director of The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) speaks during a press conference with other FRRC leaders to discuss how the Fines and Fees program will help returning citizens and the surrounding community, in front of the Hillsborough County Courthouse on, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020 in Tampa.
Desmond Meade, executive director of The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) speaks during a press conference with other FRRC leaders to discuss how the Fines and Fees program will help returning citizens and the surrounding community, in front of the Hillsborough County Courthouse on, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 23, 2020|Updated Oct. 27, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republicans' request last month for police and the FBI to investigate a program to pay off felons' court fees and fines hasn’t amounted to criminal charges or a formal probe.

But it has created a “chilling effect” and sparked threats from white supremacists, according to Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which has raised tens of millions of dollars to pay off court fees and fines for felons over the last 18 months.

Meade said Friday he’s had to hire lawyers and security experts to combat threats from people who now believe he and his organization are working to undermine President Donald Trump’s re-election.

“White supremacist groups were encouraging people to go to our website and do nefarious things and trying to sabotage the site,” Meade said.

He’s now trying to remind everyone that his organization is nonpartisan. In 2018, Meade and his group led the effort to overturn the state’s 150-year-old ban on felon voting, which was successful because it had support from both Republicans and Democrats. He has largely stayed out of the litigation over a law Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last year requiring felons to pay off all court fees, fines and restitution to victims before being allowed to vote.

“We’ve never had this issue before,” Meade said. “We’re fighting just as hard for that person who wishes they could have voted for Donald Trump as the person who wishes they could have voted for Barack Obama.”

The group faced mounting pressure after the release of a memo last month by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg that encouraged donors to contribute $16 million to Meade’s organization to help felons pay off their fines and fees.

The memo, obtained by The Washington Post, claimed to have identified nearly 32,000 Black and Latino felons who have registered to vote but who owed court debts, making them ineligible to cast ballots on Nov. 3. The billionaire Democrat has pledged to spend $100 million in Florida to support former Vice President Joe Biden, and his memo said paying off fines and fees would help that effort.

The announcement captured national headlines and the attention of DeSantis, who asked Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, to look into it. A month ago, Moody then requested investigations by the FBI’s Tampa field office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Citing state statutes and federal laws, she implied Bloomberg could be offering illegal incentives for felons to vote. The state’s Republican Chief Financial Officer, Jimmy Patronis, also jumped on, urging an investigation.

As of this week, however, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said the case is still a “preliminary inquiry” and has not elevated it to a full investigation.

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A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Tampa office said they do not confirm or deny investigations, but added, "As a general matter, allegations of criminal conduct are reviewed by the FBI for their merit, but such a review does not necessarily result in the opening of a full investigation.”

Lawyers who Meade hired to respond to Moody’s request said they haven’t heard from the FBI, and don’t expect to.

Both attorney Fritz Scheller and attorney Andrew Searle, a former federal prosecutor, wrote to the FBI and state police two days after Moody’s letter, calling it “lamentable” and “absurd.” They explained how Meade’s actions were well within the law.

“The request has already had a chilling effect (which was perhaps the intent), forcing (the coalition) to divert time and resources, and serving as a distraction from (the coalition’s) laudable effort to restore the voting rights of all Florida residents plagued by felony convictions," the letter states.

Moody’s spokeswoman, Lauren Cassedy, said in a statement that attorney general refers all sorts of cases to state police and the FBI, including threatening emails sent to some Floridians this week.

“White supremacy and racism are unacceptable,” Cassedy wrote. “Threats of violence should be immediately reported to law enforcement.”

Meade said Moody’s announcement was picked up on far-right websites and discussed on forums on the dark web. A coalition employee found chatter that white supremacists, believing the group was trying to hurt Trump’s re-election, wanted to cripple the coalition’s website.

Meade said they found discussions where white supremacists, despite their objections to the program, told others that if they owe fines and fees in Florida, they might as well take Bloomberg’s money, using a racist term to refer to the former mayor.

Meade said he’s hired professionals to assess the threat, but has not yet referred the case to police.

So far, the Rights Restoration Coalition has paid off $27 million in fines and fees for 40,000 felons across Florida. A spokeswoman for Bloomberg said he worked with Meade’s organization to contact new and previous donors and raise just over $16 million, as promised.

Meade said Bloomberg’s money did not go to anyone based on their ethnicity or partisan preference.

“It could be that we’ve paid fines and fees to a white supremacist,” Meade joked.

The program doesn’t follow up with felons to see if they’ve registered to vote, he added. A Times/Herald and ProPublica review earlier this month found that of the 325 people in Hillsborough County who had their fines and fees paid off by Meade’s organization, and whose records were made available, only 56 had registered to vote by the end of August.

There are other benefits to having your fines and fees paid off besides voting. An estimated 2 million Floridians have had their driver’s licenses revoked for not paying their fines and fees.

And the money goes to pay for court services and other state programs, he added.

“All of Florida’s taxpayers are benefiting from our efforts,” he said.

Times/Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

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