Publisher: Activism first step in fighting corruption in Volusia County governance
DAYTONA BEACH -- The 24/7 internet newspaper took a bold, but necessary first step in combatting public corruption in Volusia County by filing a a sworn complaint affidavit Wednesday with the State Attorney's Office seeking misdemeanor charges against three members of the Southeast Volusia Advertising Authority.
The complaint asserts SVAA board chair Tom Clapsaddle, vice chair Tony Stagni and member Gene Sheldon willfully broke the law regarding Florida's Government in the Sunshine by engaging in a private discussion via email strings after Headline Surfer® published a story on Dec. 16, headlined, "SE Volusia ad authority's $70,000 exec. director, operations manager & board chair chow down on public dime."
Their behind-the-scenes dialogue was in response to an admission by SVAA Executive Director Carl Watson to improperly using an agency credit card to pay for lunches for himself and others, including one of the three board members -- the chairman Clapsaddle.
Headline Surfer® alleged the actions of the four was a deliberate attempt to share information outside the presence and scrutiny of the public and the press in an attempt to figure out who tipped the 24/7 internet newspaper to Watson's admitted credit card abuses.
"The emails, written Dec. 16-17, demonstrated their willful discussion in trying to ferret out who had leaked information to the media – in this case – Headline Surfer® after their executive director, Carl Watson, acknowledged in his initial email to County Councilwoman Deborah Denys that he had improperly used an SVAA credit card to purchase lunches for himself, office manager Sherry Hendershot and Clapsaddle," Henry Frederick, publisher of the internet newspaper, stated in his typed statement delivered to State Attorney Investigator Bob O'Connor in Daytona Beach.
Headline Surfer® broke the story on the credit card abuses, first in a blog reference written to the attention of County spokesman Dave Byron reference, in which the internet newspaper's publisher said he believed he needed to send a strong and immediate message to the elected officials and those serving on boards that their service is "predicated on trust," especially in dealing with taxpayer money.
Through its investigative reporting, especially in the last several months, Headline Surfer® has uncovered other examples of malfeasance that he plans on reporting in the next several weeks, if not sooner, that could lead to far more serious serious charges against at least one elected member of the County Council and others either directly or indirectly involved in the ad authority operations.
But Headline Surfer® sought out the State Attorney's Office for the more immediate, defined and less complex issue at hand -- the backdoor discussions of SVAA board members more concerned about trying to plug leaks than discussing the issue in the Sunshine where it belongs.
"It is my firm belief as publisher of the internet newspaper that I have a responsibility to the public at large to see that when government fails to police itself, then I need to speak up," Frederick stated in his sworn complaint that he subsequently signed in O'Connor's office.
"It is my firm belief and allegation, based on fact, that three members of the governing board of the Southeast Volusia Advertising Authority, specifically Chairman Tom Clapsaddle, Vice Chairman Tony Stagni and Gene Sheldon engaged in a conversation through a string of emails in violation of Florida Statute 286.011, Government in the Sunshine, commonly referred to as “The Sunshine Law.”
Frederick said in the complaint he believed "Mr. Watson is complicit in continuing the dialogue with the three the next day," adding, "It is my firm belief they discussed outside the Sunshine to protect the interests of Mr. Watson as opposed to having an open discussion public where it belongs.
As the internet newspaper publisher pointed out to the state attorney investigator, the dialogue in the emails followed an initial email sent by Watson to County Councilwoman Deb Denys in which he stated from the onset, “It has come to my attention that Henry Fredrick (last name spelled wrong) mentioned my name in an email to (county spokesman) Dave Byron concerning some lunches that were paid for using the SVAA credit card. That is a correct statement."
And even beyond that, Headline Surfer® is sitting on a mountain of evidence -- gathered since 2008 -- thousands of pages of public records, including receipts, invoices, contracts meeting minutes, as well as several hundred audio recordings of meetings and his media outlet's own video recordings that when pieced together show "an organized and intricate network" of political and business insiders who used their connections to profit off the taxpayers.
And the internet newspaper publisher said the evidence will show they were able to do this with the assistance of inept and corrupt elected officials in feeding off the New Smyrna Beach-based ad authority with its bed tax revenues; the municipality's Community Redevelopment Agency, commonly referred to as a CRA with funding from the county and city; and the taxing district that provides for indigent care at Bert Fish Hospital, also in New Smyrna Beach.