Clashing commissioners’ feud takes an ugly turn

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — It’s no secret in county circles that Commissioners Gary Wheeler and Joe Flescher don’t like each other.

Over the years, since Flescher’s split with Wheeler resulted in the defeat of charter government, the animosity has bubbled out in back-handed remarks, both from the dais and in private – such as Wheeler saying he was grateful for Florida’s Sunshine Laws because they gave him a reason not to talk to Flescher.

Then there was the controversial and highly publicized incident where Wheeler accidentally sent an R-rated email from his home internet account to Flescher’s home e-mail in July 2007, depicting bare-breasted women.

Wheeler apologized, and State Attorney Bruce Colton put the matter to rest, saying poor taste was not an ethics violation.

But the allegations and vitriol go much deeper, according to police reports which Wheeler has been showing to anyone he hears is considering supporting Flescher for re-election.

The documents, independently obtained by our sister publication, Vero Beach 32963, show that on March 6, 2008, Wheeler reported that his county-issued Palm Pilot valued at $623 had been stolen from the commissioners’ private lounge located through doors behind the dais, where officials can take a break during long meetings.

As the investigation proceeded, Wheeler accused Flescher of being the culprit.

The Vero Beach Police Department investigated the case, and in addition to interviewing a variety of witnesses, viewed surveillance tapes that they say show Flescher placing something about the size of a Palm Pilot into the floor of the back seat of his vehicle.

Flescher has denied the claims, and investigators did not find enough evidence to bring charges, though the investigation is still classified as open.

According to the incident report, the matter was investigated by City of Vero Beach Police Detective Lt. Kevin Martin as grand theft. Martin declined to comment on the case.

Martin initially interviewed Wheeler, Wheeler’s assistant Darcy Vasilas and County Administrator Joe Baird.

Baird put Martin in touch with Facilities Manager Lynn Williams, who provided copies of surveillance videotapes recorded and kept by the county. Martin obtained and viewed footage of the hallway outside the lounge and footage from the commissioners’ parking area.

In the tapes, according to the police report, Flescher was observed entering the lounge, where he was alone for about two minutes before exiting.

Others observed entering and/or exiting the lounge prior to Flescher were Wheeler, Vasilas, who came in to get two notebooks Wheeler had left for her, and then Commissioner Sandra Bowden, who left at the same time as Wheeler and only came back for a couple of seconds to get something to cover her head to protect her hair from the rain outside.

The other video showed the door and the commissioners’ parking area.

The tape showed Flescher leaving last that evening, removing something police said appeared to be a Palm Pilot from his right front jacket pocket, and placing it on the floor in the back seat of his vehicle.

Bowden and Flescher were interviewed about the Palm Pilot, as was Assistant County Administrator Mike Zito, after Martin was told that Flescher had gone to Zito requesting to see video recordings of the parking area.

According to the police report, Flescher wanted to see if he could find evidence that Wheeler had spat on his vehicle. Flescher asked to see tapes from March 7, the day after the Palm Pilot was reported missing, though the report indicates that the complaint Flescher made about the alleged spitting incident was about two weeks earlier than March 7.

Wheeler was not asked by police about the spitting accusation, but when asked by Vero Beach 32963, he denied spitting on Flescher’s vehicle. Zito, who said he was very irritated to have wasted his time being questioned about the incident by the police, confirmed Flescher’s interest in the videotape, according to the report.

Flescher stated that he had “fully cooperated (with the investigation) and answered all of my questions,” Martin wrote in the report.

“At that point, I told Commissioner Flescher he was now a person of interest in this case and he needed to speak with me concerning this issue; additionally, I mentioned that it might be in his best interest to take a polygraph examination. He ignored this suggestion and reiterated he had fully cooperated with the investigation,” Martin wrote.

Martin asked Flescher again to answer more questions and submit to a polygraph, but he declined.

A cleaning person working as a contractor for the county had entered the lounge to tidy up after Flescher and, since she also had access, she was questioned and said she never saw the Palm Pilot in the lounge. She submitted to a polygraph examination upon request and was cleared.

The case remains unsolved.

“Due to lack of evidence, and the failure of Commissioner Flescher to submit to further questioning, this case is to be declared inactive pending further information,” the report reads, adding that videotapes and a recording of the interview with Zito were retained in the detective’s file.

Though Wheeler’s Palm Pilot was placed on the usual registry of stolen items with local pawn shops, it has not turned up and Wheeler verified that it has not been recovered or found by him.

Despite the fact that no charges were filed, Wheeler thinks the facts of the case are damning and that showing the police report to people is “a public service.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Wheeler said. “I don’t like to be vindictive. Anyone who is possibly voting for Joe Flescher needs to know who they are voting for, about his character.”

Flescher, in response, points out that he has a history in law enforcement and is a Christian, and says he considers what Wheeler is doing a smear campaign.

Flescher says the whole affair was “absolutely” a setup, a “fabrication” and says Wheeler’s actions reek of revenge for his support of Wheeler’s opponent Gary Parris in the most recent election, not to mention retribution for his voting against charter government.

“He said he’ll fix me and I guess he’s done it, or he’s trying to do it,” Flescher said.

“My campaign has actually benefitted from what he’s been doing, as people are tired of this. It’s upsetting because this is not what government is about.

“I’m not running against Gary Wheeler in this election but it seems that he’s running against me,” Flescher said. “He said that he would take me out of office.”

Flescher is running in the Republican primary against former Vero City Councilman Charlie Wilson and against former Sebastian City Councilwoman Dale Simchick, who received Wheeler’s endorsement several months ago.

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