By Miriam Raftery
Monday 12 June 2006
In an exclusive interview with Florida House of Representatives candidate Charlie Grapski - arrested after he filed a lawsuit alleging voting fraud against Alachua County City Manager Clovis Watson, RAW STORY learns of corruption allegations that can only be described as not seen since the days of Boss Tweed.
Charlie Grapski, a Democrat running for the Florida House of Representatives, was arrested in April after filing a lawsuit alleging that City officials abused power and influenced the outcome of an election by manipulating the absentee voting process. The story, however, does not start or end with election fraud allegations. What Grapski tells is a tale that one cannot imagine occurring in a law abiding country, one of false arrest, intimidation, and a crony-business system all centered around money interests.
Clovis Watson is not only the City Manager of Alachua county and, as such, the defendant in Grapski's lawsuit, he is also the Police Commissioner of Alachua, Florida, a town dominated by the Republican Party and pro-development Democrats. Watson, one website alleges, is funded by the Alachua County Republican Party, and declined to accept the Democrat of the Year Award because he is planning a switch to the Republican Party. The site also takes aim at Grapski.
According to Grapski, "Clovis Watson filed a sworn complaint as a police officer himself, and as City Manager he was the aggrieved party. As Police Commissioner, he was his own boss and accepted the sworn complaint from himself - and then instructed his subordinates on the police force to have me arrested."
Now, RAW STORY has learned, the Sheriff's office has announced that additional charges, including felony wiretapping, will be filed against Grapski and Michael Canney, a Green Party member who witnessed and videotaped Grapski's efforts to obtain public records.
In this exclusive interview with RAW STORY on June 11, 2006, Grapski reveals startling details of his situation and updates regarding an election outcome allegedly changed by absentee ballot manipulation. He also levels serious allegations of abuse of power by public officials, including officials linked to President George W. Bush's brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Raw Story's Miriam Raftery: What was your background before you decided to run for public office?
Charlie Grapski: I'm a political scientist and political theorist. I taught those topics at the University of Florida. I am finishing two doctorates, one in politics and one in law; that's a PhD in law, not a JD. I've been involved in local politics for a long time as an activist. I served on a campaign charter review board for the City of Gainesville.
RS: How did you become involved in election reform?
CG: I've been involved in election reform a long time and have been pushing for election reform through charter review board this year.
RS: Let's go back to April and what happened that that started all the troubles leading up to your arrest.
CG: On April 11th there was an election in the City of Alachua. That's part of my district that I'm running for. I went up to the polling location to meet people and get petitions signed and campaign for my candidacy. I knew of some problems in Alachua, but I didn't know how bad they were; people came to me with all sorts of concerns. I said "I'll stay around to watch the vote count on election night." So I went there and saw a number of violations of the law. This was at City Hall. The City officials conducted the elections themselves, which is problematic.
RS: What happened next?
CG: I began investigating this matter and speaking to other people who conveyed stories of their experiences in the election. What they were alleging is that city officials abused their authority and power and actually manipulated the election outcome through use of the absentee ballot process.
RS: How did they manipulate the absentee ballot process, in your opinion?
CG: More will come out this week, but in effect they improperly influenced citizens who cast absentee ballots and instructed them on how to cast them. This included Clovis Watson, the City Manager who is also the Police commissioner. He served on the canvassing board, which is supposed to be neutral, and he is the one who personally arrested me. Another one is Alan Henderson, the City Deputy Clerk, he acted as supervisor of elections for that election.
RS: Were they on the ballot themselves?
CG: No. They influenced the election for a guy named James Lewis. He won the election by 18 absentee ballots but lost it prior to the absentee ballots being counted. This was his election to his 40th consecutive commission. He was on the City Commission (like a City Council). Basically they went up and actively influenced voters on how to vote.
RS: Could that be legal campaigning?
CG: Not if you're a city official and an election official ... I don't want to go into too much detail, but in the conduct of giving people ballots they were also engaged in telling them how to cast the ballots. We believe that this is not the first time that they have done this.
RS: Did they try to influence the general public, or are you referring to City employees?
CG: We know that one of the ways they did this was to the general public ... people that work for the city are either part of the problem or they are afraid to stand up against it. The people in the City of Alachua are afraid of retaliation by the public officials and the police officials if they stand up to the government. People are literally afraid.
RS: What did you do that started the trouble you're facing?
CG: The first thing I did was I began investigating on my own and organizing and explaining to people what the law was, after the April 11 election. We began talking to others. I spoke to a law professor and former Mayor of Gainesville. His name is Joe Little. He said these are very serious problems and we need to do something about them. We met and discussed it, then I brought citizens of Alachua down to his office and we discussed what we knew. At that point we began interviewing people who were unduly influenced in the election. The things we found out were beyond your imagination. We have an amended complaint being filed this week (week of June 19, 2006).
RS: When was the earlier complaint filed?
CG: We filed a complaint April 23 against the city officials including the mayor and Clovis Watson.
RS: What happened after that?
CG: Later that week, what I began to do was review all of the records of the election to strengthen the case as we wrote up the filing and to document what we knew, to make sure we were correct in our allegations. On Thursday after filing the lawsuit I filed a formal public records request under Florida law with Alan Henderson (the City Deputy Clerk who is also Supervisor of Elections). He is required under law to have those documents ready every day by noon. I said I'd come in on Friday of that week to review the documents. I also knew that with a similar problem ten years ago, the City destroyed the records and told citizens they no longer existed.
RS: So you had reason to be suspicious?
CG: The City's normal approach even to City Commissioners they didn't like was to deny them the public records. So I went in on that Friday with a witness, Eileen McCoy, who was the sole plaintiff at the time, a resident of Alachua. A lot of people were afraid to put their name on the complaint, but she did. I brought my video recorder, because if the city was going to tell me lies or deny me records I wanted a record of that. So I walked in and I told Alan Henderson that I was recording him even though I didn't have to tell him, and he even talked to the recorder to make sure he was being heard clearly.
RS: Did he give you any records?
CG: He basically denied me the records. I said put it in writing and give me the reason you're denying access.' And he called the police!
RS: What was your reaction and what happened next? Were you surprised that the police were called?
CG: Whenever anybody comes to City Hall in Alachua and speaks up, they call the police force. Clovis Watson holds more than one office (City Manager/Police Commissioner/Clerk Canvassing Board Member). It's unlawful in state of FL to hold 2 offices.... Then Clovis came in and began speaking; a few minutes into it said I notice you're recording me. He said "If I don't give consent, that's a felony." I said, "No, you can clearly see that I'm recording, two is that you're continuing to talk, and three is you're a public official engaged in public business." He actually wrote in a memorandum to the City Commission that he had no problem being recorded.
RS: So they arrested you?
CG: He didn't arrest me that day. He then said I could review the records Monday at 10:30. Over the weekend he e-mailed me asking for a copy of the tape. I said I'd consider it ... He asked to be notified in advance if I planned to record him. I said "Be on notice that I will record all my transactions with you." I came in on Monday, began reviewing the records and in the middle of doing that he came out with a police chief and two armed officers and arrested me for what is a felony wiretap statute.
RS: Is that a state, local or federal statute?
CG: It's a state law intended to make wiretapping illegal. Clovis Watson filed a sworn complaint as a police officer himself, and as City Manager he was the aggrieved party, as police commissioner he was his own boss and accepted the sworn complaint from himself and then instructed his subordinates on the police force to have me arrested! All along, he is the defendant in the elections lawsuit we filed!
RS: What did the Mayor have to say about all of this?
CG: The Mayor (Jean Calderwood) had been appointed in the past by Jeb Bush. Her husband was the treasurer of the James Lewis campaign. She's also a defendant in the case. She's come out publicly in the newspapers over the weekend saying that she was in constant communication with Clovis Watson to arrange my being arrested ... She said Clovis Watson did not go out on a limb alone, he was in constant communication with her ... She said that in a letter to the editor of the newspaper editor.
RS: Can you send me a copy of that editorial?
CG: Yes, I will scan in that and some other documents.
RS: When was the arrest and what's the status of your case now?
CG: I was arrested May 1st in City Hall. There are photos online www.freealachua.org. A judge ordered my release by 5:00 that day. Someone in sheriff's office decided to hold me over and we had to wake up another judge at midnight to have the original judge's order [upheld].
RS: Did you have to post bail?
CG: I was released on my own recognizance.
RS: What's happened since then?
CG: It only got worse from there. I tried to get the records I'd been seeking. The city put obstacles in our way and refused to turn over the documents. Michael Canney, a member of the Green Party, came as a witness and saw me arrested. He then began filing public records requests himself to get access to records they've denied me Slowly but surely we began getting some documents.... One that we've been asking for and still haven't given us is a log of requests for all the absentee ballots. They think we are requesting the log to find out who cast ballots so we could interview them. We already know who cast ballots and are in the process of interviewing them. We have another reason.... But the City officials, Clovis Watson sent out a memorandum accusing us of intimidating voters and threatened to arrest us for that!
RS: On what grounds?
CG: When Michael received a list of absentee ballot voters, not the one we requested but another one, Clovis Watson sent a certified letter warning him about how he uses that list. They then put an ad in the newspaper for the last two weeks telling people who voted absentee that if we contact them, they should contact the city so they can take legal action!
RS: How many people voted absentee ?
CG: There were about 120 requests for absentee ballots, of which 107 were counted. Without all the records we can't say for certain anything.
RS: Were there people who say they turned in an absentee ballot request but their ballots weren't counted? In other words, do you have reason to believe there was any destruction of ballots?
CG: There was destruction of ballots, but in a different context. Now on May 15th I went into the City Commission; it decided to try to pass the conclusions of election in a consent agenda item, which is illegal. I went to that meeting and attempted to have them follow rules and law. They threatened to have me arrested that night. After that meeting, the Mayor sent a memo to Clovis Watson asking him to have me arrested.
RS: On what grounds?
CG: Saying I violated conditions of my release from jail by attending a meeting, they called it disruption. Of course my "disruption" was to basically make points of order, formal motions under the rules. That they called disruptive.
RS: Were you arrested again?
CG: No, but they were threatening to; it came very close. Last week the city commission met again. They thought I would be there but I wasn't there for other reasons. But the City had arranged to have a local TV station there and they were going to arrest me that night on TV. Clovis Watson, when he arrested me the first time on May 1st , sent out press releases to the media so it was a very staged event.
RS: How is the media responding? Is there any outrage?
CG: The Gainesville Sun, which is the biggest paper in town, their coverage hasn't been the best but they did run an editorial and a great editorial cartoon and they are very concerned about it. Now Hugh Calderwood, the mayor's husband and Stafford Jones the chairman of the Republican Party for Alachua County and the Republican Party of Alachua County has put up a website designed to attack me and draw a line in the sand for Alachua County, which they designate as a model of how a city should be run. See links on the www.freealachua.org site. The High Springs Herald has done the best job so far of reporting this. They have been reporting it weekly. Another, the Observer is not online but we'll be putting it up online today.
RS: Has there been any national coverage?
CG: The first national was in LA CityBeat on Thursday, an article by Andrew Gumbel, who wrote the book Steal This Vote.
RS: What's happening now?
CG: This week the Sheriff's office and the Sheriff, a guy named Steve Oelrich, a Republican running for the State Senate right now, on Friday I was contacted by the Gainesville sun and informed (because they alerted the newspaper and not me) that the Sheriff's office is filing two further complaints against me for unlawful taping. They are accusing me of felony violations of the law and now filing two charges against Michael Canney for videotaping. The irony of this of course, is that when I contacted the television news with videotape of one of the incidents that they (the officials) claim Michael violated the law by videotaping, Michael videotaped me audio taping Clovis Watson. But the television station was there too, videotaping. They showed this on the news, yet Michael and I are being charged with videotaping while the television station isn't - and they were there doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. That's how absurd this whole thing is.
RS: When will these charges be heard?
CG: The State Attorney's office has not formally charged us, but they've refused to drop the charges, so they are playing this game of harassment. They know the minute they drop the charges we will go on the offense and bring false arrest and civil rights charges. To make matters worse, the former state attorney who many in state attorney office work for is Rod Smith, a Democrat running for Governor. Rod Smith is from Alachua and he wrote Clovis Watson's dual office-holding contact.
RS: Is Clovis Watson a Republican?
CG: Clovis Watson is a Democrat who the Republican Party says on their website is coming over to the Republican Party. But Rod Smith is a player. There is another dimension to what's happening in Alachua County. The County of Alachua is one of the two Democratic voting areas in Florida; the rest of the state has gone Republican. The Republican Party has taken over the City of Alachua and basically opened it up for drive-through development. There are all kinds of land deals where these city officials and cronies are benefiting by development of land, including Rod Smith. We're talking a Wal-Mart distribution center, a Wal-Mart super-center and a Home Depot ... They can't get these developed in Alachua County so they absolutely have control over some of these small towns. They are just opening doors for unrestrained growth and development - multi-millions of dollars changing hands.
RS: What is the party affiliation of the other key players?
CG: Henderson - I have no idea. He used to be a journalist I believe;... I'm told he may have family relationship with one of key political players. Calderwood, the Mayor, is a Republican appointed by Jeb Bush; she also served on the water board which had to approve the development for all of this. Her husband, Hugh Calderwood, he and chairman of Rep. Party are putting all this stuff on the attack site openly under their own names now. It used to be done anonymously on blogs. Steve Oelrich, the Sheriff, is a Republican. Bill Cervone, State Attorney, is a Republican. He was assistant State Attorney under Rod Smith, the Democrat.
RS: So this is basically Republicans abusing power and causing these problems, except for Smith and Clovis, who's converting to become a Republican?
CG: There are some Democrats, old style southern Democrats who are very development oriented. As for Clovis being recruited by Republicans, I don't think there is any Democrat in the county who would miss him. If you see the free Alachua site, there are all kinds of charges of corruption within the police dept under Clovis, a number of allegations going on around that. When you start seeing the stories and documents it will blow your mind.
RS: How optimistic are you about the outcome of all of this, and what are the implications?
CG: If you can clean up one city, you can clean up the whole country. But if you can't clean up one city, we have no chance at the national level. I see a lot of significance in this one case, because it is a small example of what's going on nationally, and it's a lot easier to tackle corruption at the local level, which is the root and foundation of national problems. I'm confident in the end that in terms of justice, I know that what we are doing is on the side of justice. What these officials know is that they have the power and authority and they can abuse it with very little repercussions to themselves normally. They have a lot of power and resources. They are used to people being afraid to stand up.... But as long as we keep fighting and pushing this issue, I believe in the end that we will prevail. But it's a struggle to do that. We have mounting legal bills and we are trying to raise money nationally to help with that (see www.freealachua.org for how you can help).
RS: Do the officials there control the court system, too?
CG: It's very much a company town, and it all depends on what judge we get. Unfortunately, on our elections challenge case, we found that in another open records case a few months ago the judge completely ignored the law, and we've got that on appeal right now. This judge is Robert Roundtree, he is also a Bush appointee. He basically threw out with prejudice a lawsuit filed by the residents of the City of Alachua regarding this multi-million dollar land deal that was the basis of the Wal-Mart land deal with a company called Waco of Alabama. Their lawyer had medical problems at the time and missed a filing deadline and the judge, instead of reprimanding the lawyer, used that opportunity to throw out the case without ever hearing it on the merits, so we don't have a lot of faith in him. But there are other judges in town. The problem is that the more local you are, there is a culture among public officials ... and they all have this unwritten rule to go after each other - so nobody polices the police and nobody holds to account public officials. They have nearly free reign in anything they do. There is one other factor. On the Alachua City Commission, and thus the boss of Clovis Watson, is a woman named Bonnie Burgess. She is running for the State House in the same State House race I am, as a developer-friendly Democrat. These people are supporting her run for that office as well - Clovis and the Calderwoods, the powers-that-be in the City of Alachua.
RS: When is your primary election?
CG: September fifth.
RS: Who else is in the race?
CG: There are three Democrats and one Republican, but this is a Democratic district, so they know that whoever wins the Democratic primary is going to win the race.