[UPDATE: Stacy Ritter has posted a somewhat surreal YouTube video press release on the elections commission charges. See it above.]
The Florida Elections Commission found probable cause this morning to charge Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter with 28 election violations.
The nature of the charges aren't clear, but they are based on a voluminous complaint filed by Hollywood attorney Brenda Chalifour, who was present at this morning's hearing at the Senate Office Building in Tallahassee. Ritter did not attend the hearing, though her Tallahassee lawyer, Mark Herron, was there in her stead.
Scheduled to come next is a hearing involving the charges that will act as a kind of trial at which the evidence will be hashed out and argued.
"Thus far, justice is served," said Chalifour, who is flying back into town this evening. "The devil is in the details. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be."
These charges are civil in nature, not criminal, though any evidence of criminal wrongdoing could be forwarded by the commission to authorities, as happened in the election case involving former Broward County Commissioner Scott Cowan.
There is no indication that will happen at this point. The most serious accusations in Chalifour's complaint involve tens of thousands of dollars that were alleged in the complaint to have been unaccounted for by the Ritter campaign. Another issue: Whether Ritter's lobbyist husband, Russ Klenet, earned the nearly $15,000 he was paid from the campaign account.
UPDATE: In a press release, Ritter basically claimed that Chalifour filed the complaint because their differences over airport expansion. Very lame, but she did address the charges too:
During my term as Mayor, Brenda and I exchanged bitter comments in the press and we routinely clashed at commission meetings. I was attacked for my efforts to expand the airport which I believe was the right thing to do for all of Broward County. Brenda filed this complaint against me with the Florida Elections Commission as part of her effort to attack me and derail the runway.
Regardless of the reasons, a complaint was filed and errors were discovered and have been addressed. Although any bookkeeping errors were clearly unintentional, I take full responsibility.
Be assured that we take these violations seriously. There was no money missing from the campaign account. Many of the allegations raised in the complaint were rejected by the Florida Elections Commission.
I accept the decision of the Florida Elections Commission to find probable cause that errors were made in accounting and data entry by staff during my 2008 campaign. We look forward to answering the concerns raised by the commission in its finding. We will have an opportunity to do that later.
Several of these errors seem to have occurred during the refund process after the campaign was over. Every entity that contributed to my campaign received a pro rata refund of their contribution from unspent monies.
We have cooperated with the Florida Elections Commission, will continue to do so and we appreciate their professionalism.
In response to Ritter's press release and video, Chalifour wrote:
For the record, I filed the complaint because Stacy Ritter appears to have violated the Laws of the State of Florida. I just reported the FACTS. I didn't make anything up. In fact, I asked more questions than I made assertions. The Florida Elections Commission determined there is probable cause to charge her with violating the law on 28 counts. Bottom line: Stacy appears to have violated the very laws as an elected official she set her hand on a bible and swore to uphold; the very laws as a member of the bar and officer of the court she has a duty to uphold. Again, I just reported the FACTS. I did not draft a fairy tale, mistruth, misrepresentation, nor Pinnochioism. Others are much more adept at doing this (and even on camera) than I would ever even consider being.
When I spoke with Chalifour, she brought up an exchange at the end of yesterday's County Commission meeting. Inside see how Ritter complained during the meeting that she was being "stalked" by the public and wanted to ban photographs being taken at county meetings by the public. Trust me, it's classic.
Apparently Ritter was sick and tired of seeing photographs of herself all over the media. So she decided she wants to do something about: ban photographs being taken at County Commission meetings except by an official photographer. Here's the slightly cleaned-up county transcript of the meeting:
COMMISSIONER RITTER: Do we have a county policy about photography within the chamber as to who is allowed to take pictures and who is not? I know for example in the legislature in chamber since the public is not allowed there is an official photographer and members of the press in the press gallery upstairs are allowed to take photographs. Lately I have begun to feel stalked by what has been going on at these meetings and at workshops and slection committee meetings. I am wondering if there is a policy. I feel it right now, being stalked. I am wondering if there is a policy as to who can and cannot take photographs in chambers or at meetings and if we should consider doing that.
COUNTY ATTORNEY: I am not aware of a policy. We can certainly look into whether or not in terms of prohibiting photographs.
COMMISSIONER RITTER: I would like to know who is taking pictures. A lot of times people come in with cameras. ... I would be curious to know who is taking photographs and I don't know.
COMMISSIONER RODSTROM: I think the problem is, you know, cell phones picking up like this. I am taking your picture. How do you know there are video cameras? It has gone from still shots to going on all the time. I don't know how -- it's a different world we live in. It's a world open -- open world. They know what we do all the time. They can record it.
COMMISSIONER RITTER: It's a new normal Commissioner Wexler said. Lois, the reason I ask is there was a photograph of you talking to people in the commission chamber and that made the news like it was illegal [or] unethical.
COMMISSIONER RODSTROM: Dreadful. That was the most ... getting in the newspaper.
MAYOR KEECHL: In the Sun-Sentinel.
COMMISSIONER WEXLER: Inaudible.
COMMISSIONER RITTER: Which was just way out of bounds. But I am wondering, just asking, just saying ... it was a picture of you in the chamber talking to a couple of people that got me thinking. There were two photographs of me last week's election in the courthouse parking garage as if any interest what meetings Ritter or Wexler attends. I didn't realize I was that interesting. I am beginning to feel like I should charge for photographs or have my [entourage]. That would make a real story. Honestly, it's like being stalked by paparazzi. I was just wondering.
COMMISSIONER WEXLER: Inaudible.
COMMISSIONER RITTER: You can see someone with a really big camera, you assume they're press. Just asking, saying do any of you feel stalked these days?
VICE MAYOR GUNZBURGER: I do find --
COMMISSIONER JACOBS: Another tip: Don't do Facebook. They take your pictures from Facebook.
COMMISSIONER RODSTROM: They put pictures on your Facebook page.
MAYOR KEECHL: They take comments off your Facebook page.
COMMISSIONER RITTER: Talk about out of bounds. You can't a private conversation anymore?
MAYOR KEECHL: No.
COMMISSIONER RITTER: I don't know. Just saying. Okay, whatever.
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CORRECTION: Some of the photos Ritter was worried about were shot by graphic artist and activist Cal Deal, but the photo of Wexler above was actually shot by the wife of the Pulp and was put on the Sun-Sentinel website. It shows Wexler speaking with lobbyists Bernie Friedman and Neil Schiller (hence Ritter's paranoia that it was showing something "illegal"). Deal sent me a word that the Florida Attorney General's Office has determined that the Sunshine Law specifically protects the public's right to videotape meetings. From the state website:
"As a private citizen, can I videotape a public meeting?
"A public board may not prohibit a citizen from videotaping a public meeting through the use of nondisruptive video recording devices."
I'll take some credit for this little outburst by Ritter. My goal is to cover local politicians like the national press covers the president and Senate. In my view, if Ritter can't take it, she should leave office instead of trying to curb the rights of Broward citizens. She might try not to forget that we own that building and pay her bloated salary. Every taxpayer has the right to take her photo.
How funny that on the day after she complains about photos of her she puts out her own video on YouTube. Apparently she's likes her image out there in the media -- so long as she has total control over it.