Accusations of Voter Intimidation Arise
by Naja and Arnaud Girard…….
As the October 1st referendum nears, Key West The Newspaper [The Blue Paper] takes a look at some questionable practices used in the referendum campaign.
Employees of local businesses complain of being bullied into mandatory pro-study meetings. Others received intimidating letters or were surprised to find their name added to the list of pro-study supporters.
“It was my day off. I didn’t appreciate having to show up at 9:00 a.m. to be pounded about dredging the channel,” says [A], an employee of Half Shell Raw Bar Restaurant. [To protect the employees we will not name them in this report.]
[B], a Turtle Kraals employee, complains that the meeting, that lasted about 40 minutes, “was not work related and we didn’t get paid.“
“I don’t know if it’s legal to force us to be there,” says [A], “maybe it is, but I am sure it’s stretching it. This had nothing to do with our work, so why have a mandatory meeting? I think we have enough cruise ships. We all made our decision in our head and they’re coming and trying to change it and its not going to work.”
Accusations of voter intimidation by corporations have cropped up all over the country against republicans and democrats alike. Such reports frequently paint an image of powerful people who abuse their position of authority by trying to “inform” employees on what is the “right” choice in an election.
But Half Shell and Turtle Kraals representative, Dave Thibault, told us the employees should not have perceived the meeting as mandatory. Thibault says he was approached by former mayor Morgan McPherson and John Dolan-Heitlinger of the Seaport Alliance pro-dredging PAC about making a pro-study presentation to the company’s employees.
Half Shell Raw Bar and Turtle Kraals belong to Pat Croce & Co. which also owns the Green Parrot, Island Dogs Bar, Charlie Mac’s, and the Rum Barrel. “Obviously,” notes Thibault , “if we wanted to force employees to vote yes, we would not allow the Green Parrot to fly a huge anti-dredging flag.”
Thibault may have been misled by the pro-dredging interests.
“The whole thing kind of back-fired,” said Thibault, “It was really over the top and seemed to have the opposite effect. And I didn’t say yes to everything. I was also approached with a request to put ‘Vote Yes’ flyers in with our paychecks. I said no, but I hear other businesses have been doing it.”
Voter intimidation in Florida is a serious affair. It can even turn into a felony of the 3rd degree in an employer/employee relationship. Under the state’s election code, even though votes are secret, if an employer threatens to discharge an employee for not voting in a certain way, the employer can be charged with voter intimidation.
While researching this issue, we received a number of tips about other possible intimidation practices associated with the channel widening referendum campaign. For instance, we’ve been made privy to a letter that Historic Tours of America (HTA) sent out to various non-profits and charities that HTA has donated to in the past.
One doesn’t have to read between the lines [emphasis added]:
“… our company’s ability to continue to be generous and successful and continue to … help your organization is dependent on adapting to the fact that the new ships … cannot now, enter our harbor.”
HTA asked all of those non-profits “to [write] a letter to the members of your organization asking them for their support.” HTA also asks for permission to publicize support letters. This must not have worked out so well either because we cannot find any such letters on the pro-study PACs’ websites.
At least one employee at Half Shell didn’t feel intimidated.
“I came to the meeting with a T-Shirt I made in protest,” says [B], “It [the shirt] was very pro-environment. They brushed over the environmental issues and the siltation really quickly and it was all about what would happen to business and our jobs if the cruise ships stopped coming.”
So, does any of this qualify as voter intimidation? The vagueness of the term “intimidation” is a double-edged sword. On one hand it seems pretty hard to convict anyone of intimidation for influencing a vote which is ultimately secret. But on the other hand, one who sends warning letters or calls for mandatory meetings can never be sure that he is not, in fact, ultimately intimidating someone in the audience into voting against his beliefs.
The employees are categorical about their attendance at the pro-dredging presentation being “mandatory”. Can refusal to obey a mandatory order from the boss result in firing? It is possible. Can pounding employees about “hypothetical” risks to their jobs be perceived by at least some as a threat to their paychecks or their right to speak their mind to other employees who could report them to the boss? Is receiving a ‘Vote Yes’ flyer with your paycheck a threatening [intimidating] message? This would be for a judge to decide, but certainly a very unhealthy undercurrent has developed in Key West over this referendum issue.
Another puzzling practice has been organized by the Pro-Study movement. The Westin provides $5.00 buffet lunches every Wednesday in the courtyard in front of Mel Fisher’s Museum. The $5,00 is allegedly a “contribution” to the Pro-Study cause. On the surface, everything seems kosher. The problem is people we talk to say they go there for a cheap meal. The so-called “contribution” could be seen the other way around – as a gift of a discounted meal. If that is the case, the practice might be illegal. Under Florida Statute 104.061 one cannot give anything of value to try to influence a vote.
We made a visit to the pro-study buffet in front of Mel Fisher’s Museum,
“I don’t want to sit in on any political meeting,” I [Arnaud] said to the nice man at the entrance.
“Oh no, no such thing,” he said, “as long as you’re a local, all we need is your name, address, and email on that form and you can get your food.” So I gave him the information in exchange for a very decent and highly discounted meal. I now have my name added to the list of people who not only support the study but have also made a “contribution” to the Support the Study PAC. My name will be added to the list publicized by the Pro-study PAC.
Now, morally, I have to make a choice: either I am a corruptible guy who will put his name on any piece of paper in exchange for a discounted meal or I could be an honorable man and vote to support the hand that fed me. In any case, one can see that the gift creates some sort of intimidating moral obligation and that discounted meals arguably stretch the legal standard for “corruptly influencing voting.”
Not so, the Chamber’s Pro-Study PAC will say: the $5.00 is actually a donation from individual supporters – not a gift to them. So here is the question: Is the $5.00 buffet a gift of a discounted meal (worth MORE than $5.00) or is the meal a fundraiser plate?
Typically one purchasing a plate at a fundraiser pays much MORE than the food is worth – that is why it is called a “donation”. The answer to our question is found in the recent financial report filed by the Chamber’s pro-study PAC: The lunch buffet “$5 contributions” total $1,300 whereas the Westin’s costs for furnishing the “buffet” during the same time period show up as valued at $9,232.10 [“lunch/buffet”] plus $4,616.05 [“space and buffet”].
So obviously, if it costs up to 10 times more to produce the buffet than what people are actually paying to consume it, chances are the meals are actually “gifts” which means the practice could be considered an unlawful attempt to buy people’s votes.
The whole referendum affair has become very divisive. The hysteria becomes even more incomprehensible when considering that everyone seems to agree that nothing would happen in the way of dredging before 15-20 years.
According to Doctor Robin Lockwood, the Chamber Pro-Study PAC’s Chairman,
“Even if it were funded it would be the 2021 cycle … It wouldn’t get the money for another 3 or 4 years. And then it would be a three-year study following that, and probably 2030 before anything was done.” – September 8th, 2013 forum at Tennessee Williams Theater.
So, if nothing is going to happen for the next 15-20 years, why make people worry about their paychecks? If the ice-cream shops and the T-Shirt shops who rent commercial space downtown are not going to see their first wider channel tourist before they retire – what is the point of all this madness? Where is the immediate gain? What’s the catch? Somebody might be working an angle, but what is it?
Here’s a supposition:
If you own a conch train company or a dock called Pier B on the edge of an aging cruise ship channel, the current value of your asset is limited by the projection of decreasing visits by cruise ships. However, if you own a conch train company or a cruise ship dock on the edge of a channel in the process of being updated into a higher capacity modern mega-cruise ship channel, then the current speculative value of your business assets could go through the roof, if the referendum passes. Somewhat like when in the old Westerns the farmer who owns the prairie where the new choo-choo train is going to make its stop is suddenly turned into a millionaire.
So, could this be why our community is being divided into two camps? Is all this bitterness over something that may or may not be needed 20 years from now and which seems to mainly concern the current speculative value of a handful of big business interests?
Anyone who understands this conundrum better than we do: Please write to: [email protected]
COMMENT BY DAVID THIBAULT:
First off, thank you for getting back to me so quickly. As I stated in our conversation, I was thrown back by the phone call I received this morning. This person informed me that on the Bill Becker show you stated Turtle Kraals and Half Shell held a mandatory pro-dredging meeting. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I believe there has been a misunderstanding; we never held a mandatory pro-dredging meeting. We were approached as a group, led by J.D.H. from the Seaport Alliance, and asked if we would allow a presentation to be given to our staff “on the true facts of the channel widening”. To this we did agree. We allowed them a time slot before a staff meeting at Turtle Kraals. This is where the misunderstanding has occurred. Yes, the staff meeting was mandatory for Turtle Kraals employees, but NOT the presentation. Please note that if this presentation was mandatory it would have been held after the staff meeting to ensure all staff was in house.
We sent out an email to all GMs within our organization asking them to inform their staff that the Seaport Alliance had contacted us and wanted to show us a presentation on the widening of the cruise ship channel. One GM replied, “Will the Responsible Tourism Group be giving a presentation as well”? As I stated to you on the phone, I replied that “I would gladly give them the same opportunity if someone approaches us and asks to do so, but we can’t make it mandatory”. This statement stands true today, but nobody has contacted us as of yet. Out of our whole organization we only had 10% of our staff attend this presentation. If this were mandatory, we would have had 100%. We even held a benefit for a commissoner candidate at Turtle Kraals who is openly anti-dredging.
My biggest fear is that you and your readers will have the wrong perception of our restaurant group as we have worked very hard to reduce our carbon footprint on this island and in turn make a difference in this area within the hospitality industry. As we continue to grow we pride ourselves as being one of the greenest restaurant groups on our island and continue to improve our operations in this area.
Before we acquired the Half Shell and Turtle Kraals we asked a close friend of the company to set up a meeting with Last Stand. Our objective was to seek help in creating our green policy. A meeting was set up with Al Sullivan from Last Stand and Alison Higgins, the City Sustainability Coordinator. As I walked into that meeting I handed Allison my business card upside down with this statement printed on it, “Printed on recycled paper”. All my business cards read the same today. The meeting was a success and as a group we learned a lot. We were able to improve and continue to do so. All of of our locations recycle, buy products from green companies where we can and use eco-friendly products when available. This has even gone as far as not giving straws to customers when served water unless the customers ask for it. We realized that we could save 2000-3000 straws a day company-wide by doing so, significantly cutting down our plastic use. We just attended a green food show in July to see where we can improve more and we are currently in the process of changing out all plasticware to green eco-friendly products.
One of our proudest moments was in the resurrection of Turtle Kraals and Half Shell. As you and many locals know we did quite a few renovations to improve our guests experience but not without taking the environment into consideration. Do you remember that ugly wall that cut the Turtle Kraal bar in half? Or the stage out back that kept the neighborhood up late at night? We tore those down and recycled the materials. We used all of the weathered wood for the walls in the Half Shell game room. In fact 90% of the material used in our renovations was recycled. Even the floor in our new retail store at the Half Shell came from a floor that our contractor ripped out of an old house.
I am not exactly sure why anyone would have said we held a mandatory pro-dredging meeting, but again that was not the case. As you may know one of our companies is currently flying the anti-dredging flag!
Thank you for taking the time to hear our side. I would like to offer you the opportunity to tour our properties to see the green-friendly improvements we have made.
VP of Operations & Development
Pat Croce & Co.
Key West Group