Woman who says she exchanged sex for rent with Hernando commissioner describes political alliances

Published September 12 2018
Updated September 12 2018

BROOKSVILLE — Valerie Surette, the woman at the heart of prostitution-related charges against former Hernando County Commissioner Nick Nicholson, told Sheriff’s Office detectives in March that he frequently talked to her about county business.

In a recording of her interview with detectives, she discussed what political insiders have long said about Hernando Commission alliances — that even with five Republican commissioners, two factions are vying for control.

The Commission chairman called Nicholson shortly after Sheriff’s deputies discovered Surette and her husband living with Nicholson in February, she said, and yelled at him for possibly costing himself his seat and their control of the majority vote on the commission.

Additionally, Surette said, the political operative behind Nicholson’s faction came to Icon Gentlemen’s Club last year, where she was a stripper, to reconnect her with Nicholson after a breakup.

Nicholson faces three misdemeanor charges, including one count of running a house of prostitution and two counts of purchasing services from a prostitute. His case has not yet been resolved. Nicholson did not return messages this week seeking comment.

The detectives’ hour-long interview with Surette, interviews with Mindy Baker, another former stripper who lived with Nicholson for three years, Surette’s husband and Baker’s boyfriend were released to the Tampa Bay Times last week in compliance with a public records request.

The file also included dozens of photos and several videos downloaded from Nicholson’s cell phone. Most were of women with their faces obscured by the Sheriff’s Office; some show women bare-breasted or naked.

The new information released by the Sheriff’s Office details the living arrangements at Nicholson’s home. Baker lived there for much of a three-year period, she said, and spoke about trading sex with Nicholson for room, board and use of a credit card.

Surette described a relationship with Nicholson that included sex in exchange for living in his Spring Hill home with her husband. Nicholson also paid her $100 for sex on Tuesdays and $200 on Saturdays, her husband told deputies.

"I’ll actually sit there and be his friend, too,’’ Surette told detectives. "I’ll let him talk about his day and county stuff. That’s what allowed me to get kept around and make so much money ... I keep him company.’’

She said she made as much as $20,000 from Nicholson.

Because of the arrangement, Surette said, Nicholson told her about County Commission meetings and that she "knew first’’ about upcoming issues. For example, she told detectives, she knew about discussions of an ordinance regulating recreational vehicles parked on private property.

And she said she knew that Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis was against Nicholson during his last election, but that he won anyway.

Deputies first learned of their relationship after Surette made a domestic battery complaint against her husband in February, resulting in his arrest.

She told detectives she was in the commissioner’s car days later when Nicholson got a phone call from the County Commission chairman that he took by speaker. The chairman was Steve Champion, although Surette did not know his name.

According to Surette, Champion asked Nicholson, "What were you doing talking to reporters? You shouldn’t have said anything ... because they (opposing commissioners) have three people now. They can do anything they want to get done, because all it takes is three.’’

Nicholson told Surette that he, Champion and Commissioner Wayne Dukes were in the majority on the commission, she said.

The three "are all on the same team together, and they can get whatever they want done, because they’re the majority,’’ Surette told detectives.

Champion on Monday denied having such a conversation with Nicholson, saying that Surette — an admitted drug user and prostitute — was not credible.

"I don’t talk to Nick like that,’’ he said. "Most of the time we voted right together, but we were not in cahoots. Like-minded people vote together.’’

County Commissioner John Allocco, who is chairman of the Hernando County Republican Executive Committee, said the idea of a three-commissioner alliance voting together would be disappointing, if true.

"I thought we were all Republicans, and we were a team,’’ he said.

Gov. Rick Scott suspended Nicholson after his arrest and appointed John Mitten, who will serve through 2020.

Mitten has been seated only since June, but already voted with Allocco and Commissioner Jeff Holcomb in a controversial decision to create an advisory committee for the Brooksville regional airport. Dukes voted against it; Champion spoke against it, but gave it a thumbs up when he learned each commissioner could appoint a committee member.

Among the photos taken from Nicholson’s phone was a picture of Dukes in what appeared to be a Washington, D.C., bar. Last summer, Nicholson, Dukes, Champion and Allocco attended a Florida Association of Counties event at the White House.

Dukes said he had dinner with Nicholson and Champion at their hotel, but did not recall going to the restaurant depicted in the plaque behind him in the photo. Allocco said he did not sit with the three at events to avoid any question of improper communication.

Surette told detectives that she met Nicholson about four years ago when he started asking her for lap dances at the strip club in Hudson. He stopped coming at some point, she said. Then last year, his "friend" came in on Nicholson’s behalf to see if she still worked there, and to tell her that Nicholson wanted to see her again, she said.

Surette identified the friend as Tom Barnette, whose name she knew. Barnette owns a Brooksville travel agency and worked for Nicholson’s and Dukes’ political campaigns.

Barnette stood to gain financially two years ago if the county had approved a waste-to-energy vendor supported by Dukes and Nicholson. And Barnette did consulting work for Republic Services, which recently won a seven-year contract extension as the county’s sole residential garbage collection company.

Barnette this week discounted Surette’s account.

"I have no recollection whatsoever of what she said. Zero,’’ he said

Surette said in March that she knew Barnette to be Nicholson’s friend and the person who ran his campaign.

"He’s really rich. He’s got more money than he (Nicholson) does ... but I really don’t know him other than he goes to the strip clubs, too,’’ she told detectives.

"Just as she stated, she doesn’t know me,’’ Barnette said Tuesday. "I am not rich. That’s an offensive statement in and of itself, not to mention how ridiculous and absurd anything else she says of me would be.’’

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.