Commentary by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
Several years ago, I moved from one apartment to another here in Key West. At that time, I still owned Key West The Newspaper– The Blue Paper– and I was, therefore, a little more concerned about “appearances” than I am now, as an old retired guy. I knew that when one moves, there are laws that have to be considered concerning updating home addresses on drivers licenses, voting registrations, etc.– and although I didn’t really know the details about what legal penalties might befall me if I failed to obey any of these laws, I dutifully changed my home address on all of those records simply because I was supposed to. And, incidentally, because there were critics of the newspaper out there looking for any opportunity to criticize me as, perhaps, just maybe, I had criticized them in the past.
It just so happened that a City of Key West election was coming up at the time and there was a candidate running in my “old” district that I was interested in supporting. So why not go ahead and vote for him? I had not yet contacted the Supervisor of Elections Office to change my address– so why not just go ahead and vote one more time in my old district, and change my address after the election? Who would ever know? Well, I would know. And my critics would know, if they wanted to bother to check. You may or may not know that all voting records — except how you actually vote– are public records, like home addresses, when you vote or don’t vote, and the flavor of your registration– Republican, Democrat or Independent. And then, as I said earlier, there was the law. But that was not much of a factor in my decision to go ahead and change my address and vote in my “new” district. Perhaps it may have been a bigger factor had I known then that knowingly voting in a district where you don’t live is voter fraud and a third degree felony, subject to time in prison. “Voter fraud,” “felony” and “prison” are not nice words.
But if you’ve been keeping up with the local news over the past few weeks, you know that those words have been bandied about in numerous news stories about one of the most prominent citizens in our community– 85-year-old businessman J Robert “Bob” Dean. Dean is the longtime chairman of the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA). He has also served for years on the board of the Key West Housing Authority. Service on both of these boards have simple residence requirements. A board member of the Housing Authority has to live in Key West. FKAA board members represent five districts up and down the Keys and members have to live in the district they represent. Dean represents the Key West district. He says he lives in Key West– in a small apartment on Bahama Street behind his funeral parlor. And to document his residency, he points out that he is registered to vote at that address and that he has been voting in Key West for many years.
But State Attorney Catherine Vogel is questioning the legality of Dean voting in Key West and has, in fact, conducted an investigation to determine where Dean really lives. Among the findings of Chief Investigator Chris Weber: Dean does not live at the Bahama Street address. He shares a luxury home with his wife in Key Haven, just outside the Key West city limits. The residence is homesteaded– that is, they receive a $50,000 annual property tax exemption. The Key Haven address is listed on Dean’s driver’s license and auto registration. The Key Haven address is listed on Dean’s state funeral director license. And, reportedly, when the water-use records were pulled for the Bahama Street apartment, it was determined that only 20 gallons of water had been used over 20 months– about the normal use for one person in one day. Weber reported that Dean even admitted to him that, over a recent six-month period, he had slept at the Bahama Street apartment only about six nights. Weber wrote in his report to Vogel: There is probable cause to believe that Dean has been in violation– voting in a district where he doesn’t live.
So, will Dean be prosecuted? Not right now. Weber also found that, several years ago, when questions about Dean’s Key West residency were first being asked, the Supervisor of Elections Office asked Dean to confirm his home address. He reportedly responded with the Bahama Street address– and the Elections Office took him at his word. Dean apparently took that as an “okay” to vote in Key West. To be convicted under the voter fraud law, prosecutors must be able to prove intent– that a voter “knowingly” violated the law. In this case, the State Attorney’s Office has concluded that Dean may have been misled by the response of the Supervisor of Elections Office and didn’t know that he was voting illegally.
Now, before you get all out of shape thinking that State Attorney Vogel has wussed out on this, note that she has formally notified Supervisor of Elections Joyce Griffin that Bob Dean does not live in Key West and is, therefore, not eligible to vote in Key West elections. And election day for the next Key West city election is next Tuesday, October 6. So what will Dean do now? If he votes, he risks prosecution. But if he fails to vote, he may lose by default his already-anemic claim to Key West residency. The State Attorney says he doesn’t live in Key West– a strong argument for any citizen who may want to challenge Dean’s eligibility to serve on either the FKAA or Key West Housing Authority boards.
At the recent FKAA Board meeting, Attorney Michael Halpern, who is representing Dean, promised that Dean will, indeed, vote next Tuesday– seemingly an in-your-face-challenge to Vogel. If Dean does vote, the matter will be referred to the Canvassing Board for a ruling on Dean’s residency. The Canvassing Board is made up of City Commissioners Jimmy Weekley and Clayton Lopez, as well as Key West City Clerk Cheryl Smith. If Dean votes and the issue goes to the Canvassing Board, the members of the board will have in hand Chris Weber’s investigative report. Presumably, Halpern will want to present Dean’s side of the story. He can do that in writing before the scheduled Canvassing Board meeting next Friday, October 9. Halpern may also lobby Weekley, Lopez and Smith personally and privately.
According to Supervisor of Elections Griffin, the Canvassing Board is the final voice in this matter. A ruling in favor of Dean would provide at least some legitimacy for his claim that he “lives in Key West.” A ruling against him could not only jeopardize his appointments to the FKAA and Housing Authority boards, it could expose him to possible prosecution on charges of knowingly and willingly voting in a district where he doesn’t live.
Let’s all watch together to see what happens.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: A possible argument in favor of Dean might be that, yes, maybe he does really live in Key Haven– but that shouldn’t count because Key Haven is so close to Key West. But, unfortunately, close only counts in horseshoes, boccie and hand grenades.
See the State Attorney’s investigative report and supporting documents below:
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