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Thursday, Mar 26, 2015

County commissioners hit with criminal complaint


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A resident has filed a criminal complaint against all five Hernando County commissioners for allegedly accepting a bribe from the organizer of the Blueberry Festival.

Commission Chairman Dave Russell is calling the allegation patently absurd and a waste of taxpayer money because the sheriff’s office, county attorney’s office and, possibly, the state attorney’s office, will now have to expend time and money looking into this.

“There’s absolutely no merit,” Russell told Hernando Today. “This is the first time in my 15-plus years I’ve been in office that I’ve ever been accused of a criminal act.”

Michael Heard, president and Blueberry Festival coordinator, called the allegations ridiculous and said she will file a libel suit against Dennis Purdy if he doesn’t “cease and desist with his irrational statements.”

Heard calls this a “slap in the face” to county commissioners who are above reproach.

In his report, Purdy, a frequent critic of local government, accuses commissioners of accepting bribes from Heard in exchange for their vote to sponsor the Blueberry Festival.

Purdy, a former police chief from Michigan told Hernando Today that county commissioners “involved themselves in a real mess” and committed a criminal act by negotiating with Heard in exchange for monetary gain.

“She asked them to become partners in the festival and as part of that, she offered so many VIP passes and VIP parking and things that have monetary value,” Purdy said. “It’s fine to do that when you’re asking for donations from private people but you cannot offer those things to public officials.

“I warned them they should quit negotiating with her when those things were offered,” Purdy added.

Purdy said the city of Brooksville is equally liable because it donated some $20,000 in goods and services to the festival. He did not include them in his criminal complaint, he said, because he didn’t witness the exchange at the meeting.

Purdy said he is not concerned that Heard is considering slapping him with a libel suit because he has the documentation to back up his allegations.

Senior Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben, in an email to county commissioners, said Purdy gave the sheriff’s office a copy of a letter written by Heard last month in which she solicited the county’s sponsorship of the Blueberry Festival and detailed the expected profits given to the festival sponsors.

“Mr. Purdy alleges that each of you voted in favor of sponsorship so you could corruptly receive the sponsorship benefits,” Jouben wrote.

Purdy alleges that the commissioners committed a second-degree felony by accepting unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior and a third-degree felony for receiving of a commercial bribe.

Jouben said he met with the sheriff’s office attorney, James Fisher, on Wednesday morning and provided him with the necessary documents and the county commission minutes.

Jouben, in an email, said he showed Fisher that county commissioners could not have voted to sponsor the Blueberry Festival in exchange for the sponsors’ perquisites, or financial gain.

Chief Deputy Mike Maurer of the sheriff’s office wrote in an email sent to the department’s public information officer the matter has been transferred to the major case division.

“At this point, we do not see any obvious criminal issues,” Maurer wrote.

Maurer said he is working with the county legal office to make sure everything was done in according to the state Sunshine Law.

“It appears as if what Mr. Purdy is referring to is what any of the sponsors of the Blueberry Festival would get anyway,” he wrote.

(352) 544-5290

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