INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — The mysterious case of 300 potentially fraudulent petitions involving Charlie Wilson’s candidacy for Indian River County Commission gets stranger by the day.
And in the vortex of it all is candidate Wilson, whose story surrounding the rejected petitions – petitions that he submitted as part of his effort to qualify to run for the District 2 seat – has centered not on how this might have happened, but on political vendettas.
Largely unaddressed by Wilson was the question of how he believed the submission of potentially fraudulent petitions might have occurred. But in the latest twist, Wilson told our sister publication, Vero Beach 32963, he now believes the in question petitions were improperly collected by his volunteers – possibly including by his 23-year-old son and his son’s girlfriend — and said he has given investigators a full list of everyone involved in gathering petitions.
Wilson, no stranger to political controversy, has been trading barbs with Supervisor of Elections Kay Clem that signatures on some 300 nominating petitions ostensibly signed by registered voters on behalf of Wilson did not match the signatures in her records.
The matter has spiraled downhill, with Wilson accusing Clem and County Commissioner Gary Wheeler of conspiring to launch an investigation into the 300 signatures and leaking it to the press to smear his name.
As Wilson recounted what he knew and when he knew it, it now is clear he has known he had a problem with bad petitions for about a month and a half.
In fact, Wilson admits that at some point after turning in 700 petitions in mid-March, Clem notified him that 300 had signatures that did not match the voting rolls.
“My first thought was that it’s Kay Clem messing with me,” Wilson said.
Then he called a meeting of his volunteers and started to backtrack, think about who turned in what, and says he came to suspect members of his own family had produced the petitions with the questionable signatures.
While he has no explanation for how this might have occurred, he said from that point on, procedures changed in the Wilson campaign office with regard to petitions. He has since submitted the required number of petitions to get on the ballot.
“Those first two batches were the only ones we didn’t copy and check because we had no reason to believe that anything was wrong,” Wilson said. “From then on we copied and checked all the petitions before turning them in.”
Interestingly, a complaint was filed with the state on March 31st by Clem, who says she is required by law to do so with that number of potentially fraudulent petitions. The existence of the complaint went unnoticed by the public and the media for weeks.
But Wilson knew the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had begun an investigation. Officers from FDLE came to Wilson’s office and asked for documents, including a list of volunteers who had been collecting the signatures. He said he is cooperating with their investigation.
When Vero Beach 32963 asked him whether his son and his son’s girlfriend were involved, Wilson acknowledged they may be.
“I had asked her and she adamantly denied it. I haven’t talked to them about it any further, I can’t prove it and I really can’t investigate it any further on my own since I’ve talked to the FDLE, I don’t want to be seen as tampering with witnesses.”
Yet instead of focusing on the question of how this might have happened, Wilson’s approach from the beginning has been to paint the whole affair as a conspiracy of his enemies, namely Clem and Wheeler.
Just this past Monday, Wilson was on Rhett Palmer’s AM radio show sparring with Wheeler — whom Wilson accuses of leaking the details of the FDLE investigation to the media.
Clem, he said, hates him because he helped her former deputy Cathy Hart run against her in 2008, and Wheeler, according to Wilson, is out to get him because he’s running against the Indian River Neighborhood Association-backed candidate Dale Simchick.
This latest bizarre episode may severely tarnish Wilson’s maverick reputation in political circles in the county, and hurt his chances of a commission seat too.
Many local residents were disillusioned by his ouster last year from a Vero City Council seat, following questions about his actual residency. A run for County Commission gave the seasoned political strategist another chance, and he reinvented himself.
Launching his campaign largely on the same issue that got him elected to the city council – that Vero Beach should sell its electric operation immediately – Wilson was the darling of the voting public, and the media.
Can Wilson survive another controversy involving fraud – and less-than-candid admissions? He thinks so.
He focuses his response on what he sees as concerted efforts to chip away at him and force him out of the race, or to make him so unpalatable to voters that they choose another candidate. “That’s exactly what they want to do,” Wilson said.
Wilson asserts that, in the campaign, he is only responsible for his own personal actions and cannot be held legally accountable for something that his volunteers may have done, inadvertently or purposely.
“If somebody did something wrong, than they deserve whatever the FDLE decides they deserve,” Wilson said.
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