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For years now, a political endorsement by Sheriff Wayne Ivey has been seen by would-be candidates for elected office and many voters in Brevard County as an anointment of approval by the Space Coast's most prominent politician and lawman.
Ivey's endorsement is eagerly sought and, once given, is often touted in mailers and on campaign websites, featuring the smiling candidates standing alongside the barrel-chested sheriff as proof of his blessing, unlocking waves of campaign contributions.
But there is another side to Ivey's endorsements, some candidates say. According to them, Ivey seeks to control who gets to compete in Brevard elections and who should not.
In at least two races this election season — one for County Commission and one for the School Board — two candidates said Ivey has been pushing for them to leave the field and throw their support behind his favored candidates. In exchange, they say, Ivey has offered them political jobs worth up to $50,000 a year.
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Both candidates who said they were targeted by Ivey to get out of the races are Republicans. Both are active or former police officers. Both are military war veterans with distinguished service records. And both represent a possible threat to Ivey's District 2 picks: Tom Goodson for County Commission and Courtney Lewis for School Board.
The candidates who say they were pressured by Ivey to leave their races are Chris Hattaway, who is running against Goodson, and Shawn Overdorf, who is running against Lewis. The public claims break a long-held code of silence among Brevard County Republicans about the popular and influential sheriff who bills himself as the county's "constitutional" champion.
According to Hattaway and Overdorf, who spoke separately to FLORIDA TODAY, both were offered jobs in Goodson's office, should he win. Each said they outright refused the offer, which they said left them puzzled, hurt and deeply angry.
Ivey did not respond to multiple interview requests sent through a sheriff's office spokesman. Goodson said he hadn't spoken to the sheriff about hiring anyone if he's elected and said he had no knowledge about allegations that Ivey was making offers on his behalf.
It is not the first time Ivey has been accused of using backroom deals and other tactics to increase his influence and stack the county's political deck. A 2014 investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement ran across similar allegations that even soon after he was first elected, Ivey was trading his support for candidates for favors.
Ethics and legal experts say that if the claims from Hattaway and Overdorf are true, Ivey may be guilty of ethics violations and abuse of office, as well as criminal offenses including bribery, a second-degree felony.
"I see potential violations of the misuse of office provision in the ethics laws (and) the bribery criminal statutes," said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan government ethics watchdog agency based in Tallahassee.
And Hattaway and Overdorf may not be the only ones. According to Hattaway, he is aware of "multiple" candidates that have said Ivey attempted to use his influence and offers of jobs to interfere in local races on behalf of preferred candidates.
Respect and disappointment
As a fellow cop, Chris Hattaway says he has nothing but respect for Sheriff Ivey. He wanted to make that clear.
Still, the U.S. Army reserve veteran and Cocoa Police Department's 2018 officer of the year said he felt "played" when he said Ivey called him early in June and asked him to consider dropping out of the race for District 2 County Commissioner.
The request came with a startling offer, Hattaway said: If he agreed, Ivey promised his future political support and, he said, a job working in the commission office of former State Rep. Goodson, one of Hattaway's District 2 opponents and Ivey's endorsed candidate.
"Essentially what the offer was is they would bring me on, show me the ropes and support me in the future," Hattaway said.
Hattaway said the first call from Ivey came about two weeks before the June 17 candidate qualifying deadline. Over "multiple conversations and follow-up phone calls," he said Ivey repeatedly pressured him to exit the race and support Goodson instead.
Ivey's stated justification was to prevent Hattaway, a political newcomer, from suffering a potential loss to an experienced politician like Goodson, which Ivey told him could make it harder to win future elections, according to Hattaway.
"Basically his comments were, 'I didn't know you were that serious (about running), I've already committed to Tom Goodson. But if you are really looking to get into politics, I can put you in contact with him and you can work in his office. I told him how great you are. But we don't want to see you lose and keep you from moving further into politics,'" Hattaway said.
Hattaway said the effort to talk him out of the County Commission race disappointed and dismayed him. "To try to take me out of a race when all I want to do is represent the people in their best interest is very disheartening," he said.
He declined to speculate on whether the alleged offer was an attempt to eliminate competition for Goodson. But Hattaway' s strong showing at a June 25 straw poll hosted by the Brevard Republican Executive Committee — in which he came in with 152 votes to Goodson's 226, compared to the next closest challenger at just 27 votes — leaves little doubt he is seen as the former state legislator's major opposition.
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After a reporter sent the sheriff multiple requests for comment (which were not returned), Hattaway said Ivey called him Tuesday about the FLORIDA TODAY investigation into the meddling allegations. Hattaway said Ivey told him that he never outright asked Hattaway to leave the race, and that he only offered to recommend him to Goodson for a job if Hattaway needed it.
"The intentions of what was said was clear, that if I chose not to run, I could go work for Tom Goodson. He (Ivey) is playing semantics now," Hattaway told FLORIDA TODAY shortly after his phone call from the sheriff this week. "The real question is what’s the intent. And being a law enforcement officer, he knows it all comes back to intent."
'Not going to buy me out'
District 2 School Board candidate Shawn Overdorf spoke cryptically at a public School Board candidate forum last month, calling out what he said were behind-the-scenes efforts to push him out of the race.
Overdorf — also a U.S. Army veteran who was deployed during the Gulf War as part of the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry division and a retired Ohio police officer who worked for 13 years in Canton, Ohio, as a school resource officer — said the efforts "offended" him.
"I fought for this country, served my life protecting people, and I have people telling me to step down, I'm gonna give you this job if you do this, or if you run for this political office, we'll support you," Overdorf said during the June 27 forum, which was broadcast online by Space Coast Daily.
"Just so you guys know, I'm in this. I'm not quitting. They are not going to buy me out," he said.
Overdorf answered questions after the event, saying he had received a nearly identical offer from Ivey in the days before qualifying to drop out and support his District 2 School Board opponent, Courtney Lewis. In his case, Ivey explicitly mentioned the job in Goodson's office would come with an annual salary, Overdorf said.
"It was between $40,000 and $50,000," Overdorf said.
Overdorf declined to offer specific details of the exchange, but said he refused the offer from Ivey because he didn't have future political aspirations beyond the School Board.
"I protect kids. That's what I do, it's all I know. I'm not a politician. I don't want to be congressman or a councilman. I just want to protect the kids," Overdorf said.
That would be an 'Ivey conversation'
Reached by phone, Goodson strongly denied knowledge or involvement with any efforts to pressure candidates out of the election and said he hadn't spoken with Ivey about hiring anyone.
"I have not talked to Wayne Ivey about that. Don't know about that. That would be a Wayne Ivey conversation," Goodson said.
He wouldn't rule out interviewing past candidates for staff positions if he is elected, he said, but emphasized he would not hire anyone just because Ivey — or anyone else — asked.
"I would not do that, because I've always hired my own people. I would tell anybody that I will hire my own people, and whether you like them or not, that's the choice of an elected official," Goodson said.
"Just like in the Florida House, I hired my own," he said. "Nobody instructed me to hire my own staff. If somebody tried it, they wouldn't be well-received, and I would tell them, 'Absolutely not.'"
Goodson, who served eight years in the State House of Representatives between 2010 and 2018, said he had "no comment" about whether the alleged offers from Ivey would be appropriate from an elected official.
Ivey and Goodson have a long association, including partnering on a bill banning so-called "revenge porn" or non-consensual pornography, which Goodson first sponsored in 2013, Ivey's first year in office.
Ivey joined several other Brevard officials in asking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to appoint Goodson to fill the seat vacated by Commissioner Brian Lober in April, and was among the first to float Goodson's name as Lober's possible replacement.
The seat has remained open since Lober's resignation and is unlikely to be filled before the November election.
Is it criminal or just bad taste?
Three experts in government ethics and elections laws told FLORIDA TODAY the offers as described by Hattaway and Overdorf could be civil or even criminal violations of Florida's elections code.
"This situation sounds like bribery to me," said Wilcox of Integrity Florida.
Attorney Jan Jacobowitz, a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Law and a former member of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and the Public Trust, said if true, the allegations "fit squarely into misuse of public position" statute.
Violations of the Florida Statute 112.313(6), which prohibits elected officials from "corruptly using or attempting to use" their official position to secure benefit for themselves or others, is typically a civil matter, Jacobowitz said. Such violations are investigated by the Florida Ethics Commission and can be punished with fines and other actions, up to removal from office, she said.
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But Jacobowitz said the fact a specific dollar amount was attached in at least one of the cases could be "circumstantial evidence" of an attempted bribe.
Tallahassee elections attorney Ronald Meyer said an offer of paid employment to a public servant — which, under the law, includes candidates for office — could qualify as a "pecuniary" or financial benefit, a key element under F.S. 838.015, Florida's bribery statute.
"The traditional criminal code that relates to bribery or extortion would apply to corruptly trying to influence whether you run or not," Meyer said. "So if I threaten you, I'm extorting you. If I reward you, I'm arguably bribing you."
"If I say, 'Look, you stay out of the race, I get you a job,' I'm arguably committing a felony," he said.
Still, Meyer cautioned, the more layers of separation there are between someone's ability to offer something of value — whether the decision to offer a job is up to you or someone else, for instance — the one to whom the offer is made, and the one who stands to benefit, the harder it is for prosecutors to make a case.
All three experts said much depends on a full understanding of the facts, which would likely only come through an official investigation by state or federal law enforcement.
"The bottom line is, this stinks," Jacobowitz said. "This stinks really badly, and if it's true, it's dirty politics and it's beyond just dirty. It's potential violations of the civil and criminal statutes."
Not the first time?
Ivey has been accused of trying to influence elections outcomes before, as well as candidates.
In 2014, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated fraud allegations against the KLD Youth Foundation, and its associated charity KLD Youth Ministries, nonprofits for troubled youths, for which Ivey sat on the board of directors.
The allegations were initially reported to the sheriff's office by Jeff Piersall, a KLD board member. Ivey later referred them to the state agency due to personal connections with Janet Shaffer, the foundation's CEO and mother of Lindsey Deaton, Ivey's campaign manager and personal assistant.
Towards the end of the investigation, FDLE Special Agent Stephen Brenton interviewed a former board member of KLD Youth Ministries, who said Ivey had tried to quash the allegations by threatening to withhold campaign support from then-County Commission candidate Jim Barfield.
According to an FDLE field report obtained by FLORIDA TODAY, former board member David Murray told Brenton during a sworn interview, dated Jan. 15, 2015, that Ivey had asked Barfield to stop Piersall, a reported friend of Barfield's, from making the fraud allegations.
If Barfield failed to do so, Murray told Brenton, Ivey "would not support Barfield's (election) as a county Commissioner," the report said.
Murray said Ivey later did lend Barfield support, quoting the sheriff as saying he would give Deaton two weeks off her job at the sheriff's office to help Barfield with his campaign. Records from the supervisor of elections office show Barfield paid Deaton $3,000 for "campaign organization" in August 2014.
Murray refused to reveal the sources of the claims to the FDLE, even after he was told the agency investigates public corruption, according to the report. Murray could not be located for comment by the time this story went to press.
Barfield, who was out of state Wednesday, said he didn't remember much about the incident. He didn't recall whether Ivey had asked him to speak to Piersall about the allegations, but said there was no threat he could remember about Ivey withholding campaign support.
"If I'd heard something like that, I would have said I'm not running, it's not worth it. I'm not going against my ethics and morals for something like that," Barfield said.
Barfield said he did hire Deaton, who he said received a leave of absence to help with his run, but he didn't know if the leave was paid.
Murray also told the FDLE that Barfield had agreed to donate $15,000 to KLD if he were elected, which Murray told the FDLE was never paid.
Barfield, a successful businessman, said he never made any such agreement, but said he did donate the take-home portion of his commission salary — a total of about $160,000 between 2014 and 2018 — to the sheriff's Brevard County Public Safety Charity to help first responders in need.
The FDLE eventually decided that no state laws had been broken by KLD but referred the case to the Internal Revenue Service for what seemed like tax irregularities. There was never a follow-up by the IRS, but KLD closed down soon after the investigation ended, and its signature fundraiser, Dancing with Brevard, one the largest charity events in Brevard, was taken over by the sheriff for his own office charities and renamed Dancing with the Space Coast.
In an interview in 2018 with FLORIDA TODAY, Brenton would not comment on the KLD investigation at all, but did say that after working that case, he never again wanted to be part of an investigation that involved a sitting sheriff.
Ivey did not respond to requests for comment.
'Tired of limited choices'
Hattaway said he has personally spoken with at least two other candidates who received offers of future support from Ivey in return for stepping down from races, including a candidate for judge.
"This hasn't just affected my race," he said. "The sentiment is the same for each of them: they are servants trying to help the community and are disheartened."
He didn't give names, and none of the judicial candidates FLORIDA TODAY reached out to would confirm whether they had spoken to Ivey about dropping out.
Hattaway said most people had no idea how much pressure to conform was put on candidates by powerful influencers in the community.
It was never the intent of the founders of the Constitution to "have long-term, over and over again, people that build so much power and influence over someone else who's coming to serve their country," he said.
"We're all so tired of the decision-makers not even giving us the opportunity to make the best decision," Hattaway said. "Whether it's Democrat or Republican, the whole sentiment of 'clean out the swamp' and all of that, we're tired of just a limited choice and people that don't represent us."
Eric Rogers is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Rogers at 321-242-3717 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EricRogersFT.
Bobby Block is Managing Editor for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Block at 321-242-3710 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey accused of election meddling