Stanley Escudero had a political column, "The Guidepost," with Headline Surfer for the better part of two years until August of 2013. The status changed after he wrote the email message at left to County Councilwoman Deb Denys.
DAYTONA BEACH -- It was a year ago this month that Headline Surfer® faced its greatest challenge.
And as you can see by reading what then-Volusia County Republican Party Chairman Stanley Escudero wrote to County Councilwoman Deb Denys that I was never supposed to see. Except that he was careless in sending it to her in a county email instead of a private account.
Within a couple of days, Aug. 9, 2013, to be precise, it was in my hands as there are few, if any, reporters here in Central Florida who are as adept at ferreting out such public records.
After all, I learned from one of the best in private attorney Jonathan Kaney, Jr, when he was general counsel to the Daytona Beach News-Journal and I was the newspaper's top award-winning cops & courts reporter for nearly a decade until the mid-2000s.
I was shocked by what I had read in Escudero's Aug. 7 email: That assuming County Chair Jason Davis was not in trouble for sitting in on a $10,000 marketing and advertising contract I negotiated and secured the previous month with Renee Tallevast of the West Volusia Advertising Authority, who at the time also was serving as the acting director of the SE Volusia Advertising Authority, that the attacks from those who wanted us to go under would commence.
I had been introduced to Tallevast by the then-SVAA board chairman, Palmer Wilson, who I had met four years earlier when he ran for a seat on the New Smyrna Beach City Commission, finishing second to the incumbent among three candidates.
I had asked Davis if he'd like to accompany me while I put on a demonstration with my 24-inch iMac as I was preparing to make a similar pitch to the Country Council, too, and then the Halifax Area Advertising Authority, in Daytona Beach, the largest of the three regional tourism entities, and later the smallest of the three in DeLand run by Tallevast.
But Escudero, the GOP boss and a confidant of Denys, saw a front page story in the Daytona Beach News-Journal that motivated him to fire off the email message to Denys in which he betrayed my friendship or what I thought was such.
Here Escudero was cautioning Denys to stay clear of me as I was likely to come under attack from forces hellbent on getting the six-month contract voided. Or as he worded it, "drive Henry under financially."
Escudero continued, "This may prove to be Henry's swan song in the county."
Escudero continued, "If so, he will soon start losing even more advertisers and as he has so little to lose and as he is so very pugnacious, I would expect him to go down fighting."
By the way, for those of you who are wondering about the meaning of "pugnacious," it's an adjective that translates as "eager or quick to argue, quarrel, or fight." Synonyms include "combative, aggressive, antagonistic, belligerent, bellicose, warlike, quarrelsome, argumentative, contentious, disputatious, hostile, threatening, truculent. As a journalist, I avoid big words like "pugnacious" whose translation is not so obvious.
Escudero then painted a doomsday scenario for Denys: "We may all see several exchanges of considerable vitriol in coming weeks. I would counsel all Republicans, including your good self, to stay well clear of this. Everyone involved will probably be muddied up before it is over."
Now keep in mind, I hadn't gotten possession of this letter until a couple of days later, though several other people said they saw it in a stack of letters that were pouring in regarding our contract and they were shocked by Escudero's callousness; his lack of empathy or concern for my wife and I.
After all, Escudero was writing a twice-monthly political column, "The Guidepost," for Headline Surfer®, which gave him a forum to express his conservative politics. And as such, he had a direct pipeline to what we were working on and where we stood on certain issues.
Videos would be uploaded on Headline Surfer® along with a short story with links to related topics for our online audience.
And he always had an impressive display of cheeses, shrimp, soft drinks and such.
So here I was calling him and trying to get him to come clean about writing to Denys, and, of course, he denied it, repeatedly. He kept insisting that I was merely over-reacting to a series of stories published in the News-Journal that made us look bad -- implying we had done something under-handed.
Keep in mind the News-Journal was unable to get such a contract because it didn't have the hyper-local focus on local news in greater New Smyrna Beach like we had, especially with our extensive videos.
A few years earlier before the News-Journal was purchased in a court-supervised fire sale after nearly half the 800 employees were let go and bureaus closing, including the one on Canal Street in NSB.
But on Aug. 7, the first of 14 stories written in a way that made us look bad, was splashed atop the front page, headlined, "New Smyrna Beach mayor raises questions about $10,000 tourism agreement."
Adam Barringer, the municipal leader who was beset with multiple state ethics charges at the time saw an opportunity to attack us. And the News-Journal was all too willing to give him the forum, especially since he was head of the Volusia Council of Governments and had stroke with other mayors and CRA-related advertising revenues for the print newspaper.
Barringer led a letter writing campaign to the County Council, along with his insider friends, questioning the contract, in which Headline Surfer® agreed to market the SVAA programs with its extensive video catalogue, 5,000-plus videos -- and a strong online presence globally as Headline Surfer content has been accessed by visitors in 18,200 cities around the world.
The News-Journal quoted Barringer as saying, “I thought they (the ad authority) were in the process of really trying to become more transparent in their expenditures,” and hd the mayor continuing, “This advertising with (HeadlineSurfer.com publisher) Henry Frederick doesn't enhance the image of Southeast Volusia.”
The News-Journal story included the following reference: In his email, Barringer wrote Frederick is “the owner of a website who has been a reckless and unethical (journalistically speaking) critic of New Smyrna Beach and banished from the Southeast Volusia Chamber of Commerce.”
Although I told the News-Journal reporter, Jeffrey Cassady the reference to the chamber was not true, he left my response out of the story and it has not been corrected to this day.
The next day, Palmer Wilson chaired the SVAA meeting and despite a second day of hyped and slanted coverage in the News-Journal, the only community criticism came from City Commissioner Judy Reiker's husband, Guy Mariande, another of Barringer's insider friends.
That afternoon, the County Council in a 4-3 vote, led by Councilman Joshua Wagner of Daytona Beach, had Wilson removed from the SVAA, after Barringer and others insisted he used his influence to get Headline Surfer® its contract.
Wagner's action fueled an angry response from Denys who said it was a rush to judgment without knowing all the facts.
And when I finally got my hands on the letter Escudero denied writing, I made it clear to him I was no longer interested in him continuing with the Guidepost column.
Wilson showed up at the next council meeting and explained he had nothing to do with our contract other than an introduction, which was verified. He was then voted back in unanimously by the council. But not before Denys again ripped into Wagner.
And then in September, after Denys had a big fundraiser at the Hampton Inn in New Smyrna Beach and was now allied with Barringer, she turned on Wilson and he was sent packing two weeks later.
This time, it was Wagner arguing in favor of Wilson, who had worked hard to ensure money wasn't being wasted on bogus events that weren't putting heads in beds, and especially after a scandal in which a previous director, Nicole Carni, had been fired amid allegations of mismanagement of money.
And while the County Council and the county attorney's office made clear our contract with the SVAA was proper and legally binding, the SVAA under the director hired that August, Carl Watson, showed no interest in the stories and programs we were promoting.
And Barringer was able to convince merchants we had advertising with from the onset in our five years of reporting news to cut us off. Serafina took a job in Orlando to help offset the losses, but with the big rent we had, it didn't make sense to stay in New Smyrna Beach.
And so we decided to regroup by staying with Serafina's mom in Lake Mary. And while at first I felt sad about the circumstances at hand, it made sense to move on. Our contract with the SVAA ended in December and we were paid in monthly installments per the contract.
By then, retuning back to Seminole County from Volusia on the St. Johns Bridge gave me a sense of purpose.
The vitriol of Henry Frederick that Escudero had talked of never materialized. And while we had no real choice but to move, it gave us a chance to refocus our finances and re-tool Headline Surfer®, with our coverage never impeded.
After the first of the year we decided to settle down in Sanford and Serafina and I have never been more happy in our five years of marriage.
And in the interim, Barringer has become a lame-duck mayor, beset by a whole host of financial issues far worse than anything I had to deal with.
And I enjoyed sticking my video camera in his face at a recent joint luncheon between New Smyrna Beach and the county in discussing the possibility of a new CRA district.
I asked him why he and his commissioner colleagues raised taxes this fiscal year while he failed to pay him own taxes this year or last. He looked at me, dumfounded, and with no way to escape shrugged his shoulders and made a face.
Then he ran to the tax office and cut a check for the $3,000 or so he owed. Of course, thanks to my own sources and public records I discovered Barringer owes more than $58,000 in tax liens dating back 15 years.
I also discovered there's a $300,000 court judgment against his Barringer Construction and one of his two restaurants closed last year.
These days, Barringer ducks for cover when I inquire about his finances as well as a corruption scandal in the municipal police force involving 940 items listed as missing or stolen from the evidence room, including $8,000 in cash, handguns, ammunition, jewelry, electronics, narcotics and even automobiles.
I am also continuing to look into the circumstances that led to the departures of the police chief and the acting police chief. From what I've gathered to this point, Barringer will have serious explaining to do, possibly with the feds.
Denys has come under a lot more scrutiny in recent months with a lot of uncertainty about her own political career with a primary vote today with two challengers, Justin Kennedy of Edgewater and David Machuga of New Smyrna Beach, nipping at her heels.
These days, going back and forth over the St. John's Bridge has proven therapeutic to my psyche with all the demands of reporting the news and generating enough revenue to pay the bills.
It's a good felling knowing we have a viable new media operation that continues to cover the news.
In recent months, I've gone from dealing with an empty-suit mayor to battling the forces of the Speedway, which denied me media credentials for the July 4th weekend races for reporting on the extent of campaign contributions to politicians like State Sen. Dorothy Hukill who received more than $25,000 in campaign contributions for pushing legislation in Tallahassee.
All told, the Speedway handed out $150,000 in campaign contributions to politicians at the local, county and state levels for $154.5million in public subsidies.
Between all the corruption and breaking news and the challenge of advertising, people often ask me how I keep it all in perspective.
And then I think of the St. Johns Bridge that I cross either to come into Volusia County or to return home across on that very same span to tranquil Seminole County and Sanford, which Serafina and I now call home.
No vitriool. No belligterence. No truculance. No self destruction.
Just a whole new round of journalism awawrd nomintions to add to the pedigree of a hard-working jornalist looking to get th news out that is important to everyday people like us.