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Collusion allegations prompt email blasts

Published:   |   Updated: October 18, 2013 at 11:17 AM

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BROOKSVILLE - A resident's letter alleging collusion between four county commissioners and Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut has reached the desk of the county's highest executive, Administrator Len Sossamon.

Hernando Today has obtained a string of emails from Oct. 10 that shows Commissioner Diane Rowden, the sole Democrat on the board, received a letter from Mark Johnson, a member of a group called Credible Voice (for sane choices).

The letter alleges that the four Republican commissioners - Jim Adkins, Dave Russell, Nick Nicholson and Wayne Dukes - voted to purchase a piece of property off State Road 50 and California Street for $1 million in large part because Aviation Authority Chairman and Realtor Gary Schraut would receive a $30,000 commission on the deal.

Johnson alleges that plans for the purchase were broached when all four commissioners attended private meetings with Schraut in August.

"Cronyism at its worst is rearing its ugly head," Johnson wrote.

Rowden forwarded the letter to Sossamon, who said: "I remember we discussed an audit of the airport at our last audit planning meeting. Maybe the time is ripe for that, as well as other areas."

Sossamon copied the email to Circuit Court Clerk Don Barbee, who wrote that his office has already scheduled a contract compliance audit of the entire county, which includes the airport.

Such an audit considers all contracts, looking at whether officials followed appropriate standards and that tight practices were in place during the bidding process.

The airport is included because it tends to have a large number of contracts, Barbee told Hernando Today Thursday.

The information in Johnson's letter is not something his office would have the statutory authority to audit, Barbee wrote to Sossamon.

Deputy County Attorney Jon Jouben then told Sossamon that if he believes the allegation to be credible, then the proper place to take the issue is the state attorney's office.

"I do not believe it is credible," Sossamon replied. "Just giving you a heads up."

Contacted while on vacation Thursday, Sossamon said he's already taken the matter as far as he can.

Sossamon said it is up to Barbee's office if he wants to pursue the matter.

"(It's) not my responsibility," Sossamon said. "I have no evidence to take to the state attorney's office. It's not my responsibility to do so and I don't have any plans to do so."

Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson said Thursday his office would have to review the Johnson letter and determine if there is enough substantive evidence to initiate an investigation.

Anybody can write a letter alleging anything, Simpson said. But without detailed facts, the letter is opinion and the state attorney would not be interested, he added.

"If someone's just out there throwing out allegations, conclusions or speculation, I doubt very seriously if our office would self-initiate just based on that," he said.

As of Thursday, nobody has requested an investigation, Simpson added.

Rowden told Hernando Today that she only forwarded the letter to Sossamon to make him aware the letter was circulating.

"I don't want to get in the middle of something," she said.

When asked if she believes the letter's allegations are credible, Rowden said, "I don't know the credibility of it."

However, Rowden said she doesn't think it should be forwarded to the state attorney's office for review.

County Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he believes the decision to purchase the SR 50 property for possible future development was sound but knew there might be a future problem because of Schraut's involvement. Dukes said it is well-known Rowden has a personality clash with Schraut and that is what is driving this latest matter.

"It's a load of rubbish," Dukes said of the letter.

Dukes said he relied on county staff, which recommended the board buy the property and that it was a good investment.

The fact that Schraut's name was connected with the sale did not enter into the decision, he said.

"My conscience is clear," Dukes said.

County Commission Chairman Dave Russell's comment on the issue: "I won't dignify this politically motivated hogwash with a response of any kind."

(352) 544-5290

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