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Florida House candidate banned from City of Alachua by judge

Miriam Raftery
Published: Tuesday July 18, 2006

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“I cannot investigate the stolen election,” Grapski told RAW STORY.

In an astonishing turn of events, a judge has banned Charles Grapski, Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives in the 23rd District, from entering the city of Alachua – his hometown – where Grapski had filed a lawsuit alleging election fraud by city officials in a city commissioner’s race.

The ban occurred after Grapski was evicted by police from an Alachua City Commission meeting at which he attempted to have several items removed from a consent calendar – a list of non-controversial items that can be voted on without debate.

Mayor Jean Calderwood ordered police to remove Grapski when he invoked a parliamentary procedure – a point of order which he says they refused to recognize – and then made a parliamentary inquiry asking what the rules of order are that a citizen may invoke who sees the Commission breaking the law. Grapski contends he was attempting to prevent commissioners from violating Florida’s Sunshine Law, which requires public input for controversial measures.

“The reason that he was escorted out was that he was disruptive,” Calderwood told RAW STORY. “If I had the money to hire an attorney, I’d be suing Mr. Grapski for libel because of the statements he’s made about corruption,” added the Mayor, referring to allegations made by Grapski that several public officials have turned the town into a “drive-through department for developers” that benefits private interests, including the family of Commissioner James Lewis, which owns land adjacent to the site of a new Wal-Mart distribution center.

“It’s ironic …that my liberty has been taken away simply for seeking democratic government,” candidate Grapski told RAW STORY. “This has a profoundly negative impact on my ability to campaign. I’ve been publicly arrested, accused of multiple felonies but not charged. Most importantly I am now prohibited from addressing the Alachua City Commission in my district – and I’m not even allowed to go campaign in my district.”

An earlier report by RAW STORY, in which Grapski was interviewed shortly after his May 1, 2006 arrest, discussed his attempts to obtain public documents and his attempt to video record what he alleged to be stonewalling and denial of Constitutional rights by the Alachua City Deputy Clerk.

As RAW STORY reported, three felony wiretapping allegations were made by city officials against Grapski and Michael Canney, Co-Chair of the Green Party of Alachua County, after they made video and audio recordings documenting their efforts to obtain public records for their lawsuit. That suit alleged manipulation of absentee ballots by City Manager Clovis Watson and accused Watson of using undue influence to persuade voters to vote for James Lewis for City Commissioner.

Watson is not only the defendant in Grapski’s lawsuit. He is also the Police Commissioner of Alachua City. Among other things, Grapski alleges that various officials have violated citizens’ rights and cut sweetheart deals to push through development projects, pocketing large sums of money from Wal-Mart and the Republican Party.

“We deny any and all allegations of those claims,” Watson told RAW STORY. “Certainly it is in the hands of the Alachua Court system and that court will determine if there is any validity to those claims.”

Ban Could Stay in Effect Until after September Primary

On June 29, Judge Pete Sieg of Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit Court barred Charles Grapski from entering the City of Alachua, pending resolution of the three felony wiretapping allegations.

The illegal taping allegations were made by Alachua City officials, with two charges filed by the Sheriff’s office on their behalf. However, the State Attorney has not formally charged Grapski, leaving him in limbo – unable to clear himself or conduct any discovery, since no charges have been filed and no trial date has been set.

He is prohibited from setting foot in the town except to go to his own home. “I can’t even go to the grocery store… How can I run for office? I have to campaign from there.” He added, “It’s going to be very hard for me to investigate the corruption and stealing of the election if I can’t go into Alachua.”

Banning a candidate for public office from entering a city seems extreme under any circumstances. But the judge’s ruling is even more shocking considering that Grapski has not been charged with any crime.

“There is no set date for me to be tried, because I’m not being charged with anything,” said Grapski, who said he fears the ban could be permanent if he refuses to agree to cut a deal. “They have evidence that I’m innocent of that, and that the City Manager, Clovis Watson, lied to have me arrested, yet they are sitting on it to force me to negotiate with them.”

Grapski claimed officials have an audiotape that would prove Watson filed a perjured sworn statement in order to have Grapski arrested. Watson failed to return calls or an e-mailed request for a response to this accusation.

According to Grapski, the office of State Attorney Bill Cervone has offered him a deal. “They will eliminate all four charges against me under certain conditions. One is that I will agree not to bring civil charges against Clovis Watson.” Grapski said he is inclined to reject the deal because he believes officials are withholding filing charges to pressure him into a settlement. “But my position is crystal clear: I want the city officials prosecuted and I want the city government cleaned up.” The State Attorney’s office did not return calls for this article.

Grapski cannot invoke his right to a speedy trial without waiving his right to enter into discovery or depose Watson, he said. “The State Attorney General could sit on this charge 180 days and not do anything until after the election,” he added, noting that he believes his First and Fourth Amendment rights have been violated.

A complaint to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement also failed to elicit an investigation. “They told us the proper procedure to file complaints is to send a letter to Governor Jeb Bush,” said Michael Canney, the Green Party official who witnessed Grapski's arrest, and has himself also been charged regarding another office visit. Canney views that as a conflict of interest because the Mayor, who chairs the canvassing commission in Alachua, was once appointed by Bush.

Grapski Alleges Physical Injuries

Grapski alleges that he was injured when physically thrown out of the Alachua City Commission meeting by a police officer on June 19. “They were about to violate the law and not allow citizens to speak when it’s a right of the citizens to speak before they pass anything,” said Grapski. He accused the City Commissioner of violating Florida sunshine laws by passing “90% of its legislation in secret, including ones to pave over Alachua for Wal-Mart.”

Details of the incident have been posted at sites set up in support of Grapski, Free Alachua and The Alachua Project.

A videotape of Grapski’s physical removal from the meeting may be seen at The Truth About the ALA, a site set up by the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee. The site is critical of Grapski and the Alachua Leadership Alliance, a citizens’ watchdog group that opposes the Wal-Mart development.

On June 26, Grapski told RAW STORY that he was suffering pain from injuries sustained in the ejection and that he had attempted to file assault and battery charges against police. But he said, “Nothing’s been done on that. The State Attorney’s office and Sheriff’s office have never accepted one complaint against police or a city official. My contention is that the reason these violations are going on is because the State Attorney’s office is turning a blind eye and allowing these bad actors to run roughshod over the rights of citizens.”

Unable to reach Grapski on June 28th, RAW STORY spoke with him next on June 29th and learned that he had been hospitalized overnight with chest pains initially thought to be a heart attack. “It was related to what happened,” he alleged, adding that he believes the pain resulted from “bruising in between the ribs when the policeman dragged me out and threw me outside the door.”

Hospital discharge papers state that “bruises and muscle strains” are the most likely cause of Grapski’s chest wall pain, RAW STORY has confirmed.

Grapski, who had no health insurance, told RAW STORY he is filing for bankruptcy. “I had to raise $20,000 for legal bills and this is only going to cost more now,” he said.

A fund for Grapski’s legal defense has been set up at Grapski Defense.

Michael Canney witnessed Grapski’s ejection by police from the Commission meeting. “I videotaped the whole thing. I was a foot away,” he told RAW STORY. “I think they were manhandling him.”

Secret Deals, “Drive Through for Developers” Alleged

Mayor Jean Calderwood, who ordered Grapski to leave the meeting, is a Republican married to Hugh Calderwood, who served as treasurer of the James Lewis campaign for City Commissioner, the race in which Grapski’s lawsuit alleges fraud. The mayor denied that Sunshine laws have violated by the Alachua City Commission and added that Grapski should have used the public comment period to discuss his concerns. As for Grapski’s statements that police have frequently been called when citizens speak out at City Hall, Calderwood replied, “That’s not true.”

But a recent article in the High Springs Herald revealed other instances of the Commission voting without public input, including recently approving pay raises for commissioners without allowing public comment.

Former Alachua City Commissioner Diane Rothseiden told RAW STORY that the Commission has ejected citizens many times over the years. “It’s a badge of honor, being kicked out to try and say your piece.” Among other things Rothseiden objected to a Commission decision made without public input to allow a charter school to operate in a public park. “They were charging this charter school one dollar a year, and didn’t require them to have insurance,” she said.

Her husband, Paul Rothseiden, said that he and a friend, Robert Perez, have been “thrown out” of Commission meetings many times in the past two decades.

“I stopped counting at 24,” Perez confirmed.

Michael Canney described Alachua as a former company town that faced rough economic times after closure of the Copeland Sausage Plant, the major employer. “It’s an old-time plantation mentality here, where you have a few families that ran things. Everyone knew if you wanted a job or anything good to happen, you had to deal with these families,” he said, adding that the Lewis family was among those. “City Hall became a sort of real estate development agency for these families and their friends…The joke was in Alachua, they had drive-through rezoning. Go on a fishing trip or have a beer with the right person on the weekend, your land gets rezoned and you become an instant millionaire.”

Approving items on consent calendars without public input beforehand is a result of “developers running our government and wanting the least amount of scrutiny and questioning of their policies,” he maintained.

Since Grapski was banned from Alachua, the Commission has adopted maintenance in perpetuity of a 4,000 foot “driveway for a Wal-Mart distribution center.” The building of the special roadway will be funded by a grant from Governor Bush, but the City will be responsible for its upkeep costs as a public road. “They adopted this under consent without any discussion of what it might cost, and they refused to take any questions,” Canney observed.

Potential Conflicts of Interest Raised

Grapski faults Spencer Mann, public information officer at the State Attorney’s office, for refusing to accept his assault and battery charges and for blocking investigation into wrongdoing by Alachua City officials, including accusations of corruption and election theft.

“The State Attorney’s office has allowed the City of Alachua to operate as a criminal conspiracy,” Grapski said. “The former State Attorney is Rod Smith, a conservative Democrat, now a State Senator running for Governor. He is from Alachua, and his family’s property is part of these land deals involving Wal-Mart and other big box stores. In the State Attorney’s office are a lot of people connected to Alachua and Rod Smith, most significantly Spencer Mann.” Grapski has previously suggested that Smith was involved in absentee ballot manipulation.

In a website posting, Smith rejected Grapski’s allegations. “Specifically, Mr. Grapski alleges that I am associated with those who he claims were involved in tampering with an election in the City of Alachua. Let me by [sic] clear on this point: This charge is both baseless and false,” Smith wrote. He also defended his support of the Wal-Mart project, which would bring jobs to the community. Smith added, “Mr. Grapski also makes the claim that an additional reason the current State Attorney's office does not drop the charges is because of the fear that he will file a false arrest and civil rights suit. Those avenues are available to him regardless of whether Mr. Cervone elects to move forward.”

David Kochman, spokesperson for Smith’s campaign, told RAW STORY that Smith, along with some local unions, had supported bringing a Wal-Mart distribution center to Alachua. “They were relatively high wage jobs in an area that desperately needed them in an area that had a battery plant that had been relocated,” he said.

Kochman confirmed that the Smith family owns a ranch near the Wal-Mart distribution center and that Smith resides on his family’s property. But he denied that the Smith family benefited from approval of the Wal-Mart facility. “The property was already zoned for that use and was next to a dollar store distribution center,” he said. “Mr. Grapski’s allegations …that the Smith family property stands to benefit from this is also totally without base and can be demonstrated by the fact that the few people who were against construction of the Wal-Mart distribution center – one reason they were against it was because they claimed it would lower property values.”

Kochman also denied any relationship between Smith and Mann, other than that Mann was working at the State Attorney’s Office during Smith’s tenure as State Attorney, which ended in 2000.

Mayor Jean Calderwood took exception to suggestions by Grapski that the town is dominated by Republicans, noting that the commission is nonpartisan. She also stated that Alachua officials have lawfully complied with public records requests, noting that Mr. Canney, as head of a political party, was provided key records.

While she declined to comment on details of the election fraud lawsuit, Calderwood stated that the commission acted lawfully in approving minutes certifying the election results. She rejected suggestions of favoritism toward developers. “I’ve never taken anything from Wal-Mart or anything from a developer,” she said, “and I’ve never been employed or owned stock in any of those companies.” As a former staff member at a water management district, she said, “I actually acquired property for environmental preservation.”

Robert Perez, president of the Alachua Leadership Alliance, expressed surprise upon learning of the Mayor’s statement. He informed RAW STORY that commissioners were asked by a Mr. Rothseiden to sign a paper stating that they have no financial interests in Waco Properties, “the 1900 industrial site we’ve been fighting that Wal-Mart is basically on. Two commissioners wouldn’t sign: Mrs. Calderwood and Mr. James Lewis,” he recalled. “There was a second time they were asked in public and refused to comment on it.”

Calderwood defended her decision to have Grapski thrown out of the recent meeting, noting that a previous judicial order had advised Grapski to avoid contact with public officials pending resolution of earlier complaints. “After he was given that order, he continued to send e-mails and did come to our May 15 meeting,” she noted, adding that Grapski was “thumbing his nose at the judicial process.”

Racial Overtones

Grapski told RAW STORY that Republicans have a “big plan to make Alachua County red,” adding that the GOP is wooing African-American voters and officials. “I was given a secret e-mail from a Republican sent to so-called conservative volunteers. …Republicans and developers are trying to make a race card out of this,” he said, adding that Republicans had argued that Grapski was “going after” Watson because Watson is African-American. Indeed Watson has recently changed party affiliations from Democratic to Republican.

The email, signed by Mildred Russell, a past Republican Executive Committee chair, claimed the Alachua Leadership Alliance was bringing a “bogus” suit against the City of Alachua and invited recipients to attend a rally at City Hall. It stated, “The NAACP and members of the Democrat Caucus are going to speak up in support of the city of Alachua. We have an opportunity to show our support as well and stand with the citizens of this forward-moving community, and against the tactics of the left who want to send it backwards.” Russell did not return a call requesting comment.

But Grapski said, “They deceived everyone. The NAACP never agreed to do this. When I contacted them they were extremely upset …It flopped because I exposed it….This is what the Republican Party is doing nationwide,” Grapski warned. “They are very consciously trying to pull the rug out from under the Democrats by going after the black community.” He also faulted pro-Wal-Mart forces for pumping money into campaign coffers to influence election outcomes and woo members of both parties.

At the June 23 event at City Hall, the GOP celebrated the conversion of 15 to 20 African-American Democrats to the Republican Party – including Clovis Watson and Ward Scott, a Santa Fe community college professor who announced plans to run for the Alachua County Commission. “We’re turning this country a crimson red,” Watson said, according to the Gainesville Sun. Watson, who was appointed to his present position, also suggested he plans to run for public office in the future.

A call to Florida Republican Party Chair Carole Jean Jordan, asking why the state GOP would embrace Watson, a public official under investigation for alleged absentee ballot manipulation as well as police corruption issues in the department he heads, was referred to Jeff Sadosky, communications director for the Republican Party of Florida. RAW STORY also asked Sadosky what signal such a move might send to voters regarding the ethical standards of the Florida GOP.

“I have no idea what’s coming from that or what’s causing that,” Sadosky replied, “but I think the chairman was there participating in, what you’re seeing is more and more the values of faith, family and economic opportunities is driving African-Americans to find connections with the Republican Party, where that might not have been the case in the past. The chairman was there celebrating that. A number of that family was switching parties,” he said, adding that 15 or 20 African-Americans in Alachua had switched parties.

Asked why conservative volunteers were sent a memo claiming the NAACP supported the rally, he responded, “I have no idea. That did not come out of our office.”

When asked whether the Florida GOP had an ethics committee to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by Republican office-holders, he said, “Ethics among elected officials is dealt with on the level of where the State of Florida just passed lobbying gift bans.”

Asked whether the GOP had any mechanism to look into serious allegations of law-breaking, such as Grapski’s allegations that Clovis Watson stole an election and violated state law by holding two official positions simultaneously, Sadosky replied, “The Chairman was there looking into supporting a family of [Democrats becoming Republicans]. Let’s not read more into it than that.”

Grapski’s Options

For Grapski, options are limited. He can’t file a civil charge against civic officials, since he has not been officially charged, let alone cleared. In addition, he revealed, “The State Attorney’s office has filed for immunity from prosecution, so Spencer Mann can be in there blocking all sorts of investigations and there is no legal remedy for the citizen. It certainly doesn’t sound like any democracy that I know of, and I study democracy,” added Gropski, a political theorist and political scientist.

Asked to comment on Grapski’s situation, election reform advocate Mark Crispin Miller told RAW STORY, “This is shocking, but it shouldn't come as a surprise. The ruling party openly detests American democracy, and does whatever it can do to thwart the will of the electorate. What they have now done in Alachua County is, essentially, to place Charles Grapski under house arrest for daring to oppose their rule. It is amazing that they dare to call themselves 'conservatives.' It's hard to see them even as 'American.'”

Miller added that the racial aspect may be the most important part of this story. “Why would the Bush machine go to such lengths to keep one man from interfering with their plans?” he asked. “The fact is that they need the highly visible support of African-Americans, not because they're courting the black vote. On the contrary, the only way that this regime has ever won is by preventing black Americans from voting. In order to obscure that basic strategy, they need to foster the illusion that they're courting blacks. And so they need a bit of token black support. This is why they've silenced Grapski, so that he doesn't complicate the plan.”

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Editor's note: Three minor corrections have been made since this piece first appeared: A source transposed political parties in one statement; The name of Mr. Rothseiden was misspelled in one instance; and the time of Mr. Canney's arrest has been clarified.