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‘What we have here is a coup’
Charlie Wilson’s War

BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of November 26, 2009)

Charlie Wilson’s tenure so far on the Vero Beach City Council has been just as rocky as his controversial candidacy.

“I’ve been in office less than three weeks and already I’ve been sworn in and sued,” he said.

The lawsuit challenging his candidacy was no surprise – Wilson had been warned that someone might do just that -- but the city’s response, leaving Wilson on his own, the odd man out, came as a bit of a shock.

City Attorney Charlie Vitunac is not only not contesting former antigrowth activist Dian George’s claim that Wilson was not qualifi ed to run. Vitunac and other city officials have said they had to permit Wilson’s candidacy. They have declared that Wilson is “on his own” to mount a defense.

Wilson, a stalwart critic of the city’s utility operation prior to the election, made the high-cost of electricity a rallying cry for voters fed up with rising monthly bills. He and new Council member Brian Heady easily ousted incumbents Debra Fromang and Bill Fish in the Nov. 3 election.

Now, Wilson is increasingly seeing himself under siege – and not totally certain that he will survive the efforts to oust him. But he shows no signs of giving up.

“What we have here is a coup,” he said earlier this week as he launched a counterattack against the city.

“This is about politics, purely about politics,” Wilson said. “The city has a history of efforts by the entrenched powers of the city to discourage opposition candidates.”

Wilson accuses City Attorney Charlie Vitunac of drafting such a murky ordinance that it could be left to interpretation.

Wilson and his attorney claim that if one or more interpretation is possible, precedent would lead the court to err on the side of the person being governed by the ordinance, not the author of the ordinance.

But just who is trying to get Charlie Wilson?

Dian George is not very difficult to reach. Her number is listed in the phone book and she often readily speaks -- at least to 32963 reporters who have called her despite her attorney’s assertion that she has no comment on the lawsuit.

George said efforts to link her to some political power or cause are baseless. Here is how she decided to fi le the lawsuit. She claims she voted for Ken Daige and for Wilson, having been totally unaware of any news reports regarding questions about his residency.

After voting for Wilson via absentee ballot, George said she was “given an earful” on election night over the phone by a friend, who told her of the questions swirling around Wilson’s residency status. Enraged and feeling personally betrayed by Wilson, she fi led suit two days later.

“I was driving down Route 60 and I saw a sign that said Vocelle,” she said. “I am a former probation offi cer and I knew (the late) L.B. Vocelle from when he was a judge and I loved that man. I turned off the road and went into his office.” There, she told his son “Buck” Vocelle that “I had a problem, that I’d voted for Charlie Wilson and I don’t think he was qualified and asked him if he would take on a civil suit for me.”

She wrote a check for the $1,000 retainer from her own bank account, and insists she was motivated only by love of country and love of the City of Vero Beach.

“There is no bad blood between Charlie and myself, I have nothing against Charlie Wilson,” George said. “I’m a former Marine and I fought and would have died for my country and the freedom it stands for and I think if someone throws their hat in the ring for office, they should meet the qualifi cations. I was disappointed that I feel he knew he didn’t and raised his hand anyway.”

Wilson has asserted that he told the truth when he filed, that he met the requirements to run for office and would do the same thing over again.

Strangers don’t normally sue each other, even with patriotism as a motive, and many wonder what made George file against Wilson.

Wilson believes it may go back to another political debacle involving another City Council race — the 2005 contest between Lynne Larkin and Bob Solari.

At the time that Larkin was battling a massive smear campaign, Wilson was covering the story as news director at AM radio station WTTB. It seems an organization in Palm Beach County purchased the advertising, including spots on Wilson’s station, and George came to him as a source on the story.

George said she had a tape of a meeting of the group backing the advertisements — a tape Wilson and the station’s management deemed had been obtained illegally.

“She fi rst came to me at the radio station, she had a tape that she had done secretly regarding a group called Public Concepts, a political firm,” Wilson said. “They had done the postcards and the ads for the campaign in which Lynne Larkin was defeated and she was trying to identify where they had gotten the funds.”

George had equipped herself with a wire and infi ltrated a meeting of the group. She then showed up at the radio station with the recording and demanded Wilson run the tape, and the damning evidence contained on it, on his radio news show.

“We determined that it was illegally obtained and that we would not run it,” Wilson said. “We did not consider Dian George a credible source of information.”

George admits bringing a tape recording to Wilson but said she does not recall anything illegal or having any hard feelings over the incident. She said she chose to give the information to his radio station because she felt he was a conscientious member of the press.

“I thought Charlie was doing a wonderful job on the radio station and was thoroughly investigating Bob Solari,” George said.

“That was the last I saw or heard from Dian George,” Wilson said. “I haven’t seen her or spoken with her in years.”

George vehemently denies that anyone else is behind her actions, though she said her phone has rung off the hook since she fi led with calls from supporters and friends offering to donate toward her cause.

“People think that I’m a front for an organization, but I have not been involved in anything in the past two years and I’m a disabled veteran, I have my own money to do this,” George said. She said she barely leaves the house, didn’t read newspapers prior to fi ling the lawsuit and doesn’t have local television, just a satellite dish, so she’s been “out of the loop” for some time.

“I wasn’t interested in politics anymore, when I left the IRNA was when they did not support Humiston Park,” she said. “I have not spoken to any public officials or candidates, except for one phone call from Ken Daige prior to the election when he asked to put a sign in my yard and I wasn’t even here when he came to do that.”

She said she has not accepted the donations, partly out of principle and partly because she thinks the suit will be over quickly.

“I think Judge Paul Kanarek will make a quick decision after the hearing and I expect that it will be a good decision,” she said. “If I am wrong, I am the first person who will apologize to Charlie Wilson.”

Can Wilson fight this war?

The lawsuit was expected, but Wilson didn’t expect to have to mount his own defense. He was assured by his good friend and advisor, Charles Sullivan Sr., that if he managed to get elected, the city would be required to defend him in any lawsuit related to his eligibility.

The logic behind this position rests in the fact that City Clerk Tammy Vock accepted Wilson’s papers to run and the city failed to pose any formal legal challenge to Wilson’s candidacy prior to the election.

Wilson said he was also told by the city that the city would have to defend both its and his position. City Attorney Charlie Vitunac said he never told Wilson that the city would defend him and that state law prohibits public funds from being used to defend a candidate in an elections lawsuit.

Prior to the election, two private citizens (not residents of the city) fi led a complaint with Police Chief Don Dappen and set off an investigation of where Wilson actually lived. Wilson said his house, which he rented in September with the intention of purchasing it, was staked out by police officers and his neighbors and girlfriend were questioned about where he slept at night.

After several weeks of investigating the complaint, State Attorney Bruce Colton’s office determined that the claim that Wilson did not live in the city and did not meet residency requirements was unfounded and that Wilson had not committed perjury.

Even though the State Attorney had ruled in his favor, Wilson continued to worry about a potential lawsuit, and also about having the will of the voters overturned. Despite his trepidation, he hit the ground running, requesting a special Council meeting to focus on the electric utility.

“I frankly thought that after the swearing in, it was over,” Wilson said. So now Wilson is left with his employer, the City of Vero Beach, siding with the plaintiff and no resources to pay the estimated $30,000 retainer it would take to defend this case.

“I don’t have the money to do this, I never expected that I would have to pay for my own defense,” Wilson said. “They told me they would defend me and every attorney I spoke to said that they would have to defend me.”

Former Sheriff conducts his own investigation

County Commissioner Gary Wheeler is not the Sheriff anymore, but he still knows just about everything that goes on in this county, especially when it involves backroom political deals.

When Wheeler heard rumors of this suit brewing, he decided to conduct his own personal investigation and he’s pretty steamed about what he’s found.

“I didn’t think they (the Indian River Neighborhood Association) would be involved, but I wanted to fi nd out for sure. I found out that the IRNA as an organization was not behind this lawsuit, but that some of the people behind it were definitely members of the IRNA,” he said.

Wheeler said that he is not a member of the association, that he has not been to a board meeting in over a year, but that the group has supported positions that he has taken.

Specifically, Wheeler said he knows that Vice Mayor Sabin Abell had specific knowledge that plans for a lawsuit were underway, but added “that I also know that he was not part of the lawsuit.

“My opinion is that someone else is behind this, I don’t think that Dian George is acting alone,” Wheeler said. “I just want to know what their objective is, when people go after things or do things like this, I just want to know what their objective is and with this, I can’t see any objective, except to be vindictive.”

Abell is known as one of the founding fathers of the Indian River Neighborhood Association, a group that endorsed him in his last run for City Council. When asked about his knowledge of plans to file the lawsuit, Abell replied that he did not have knowledge of the lawsuit prior to it being fi led and that he has not spoken with George in several years.

“But I did know all the details that would need to be done for someone to fi le because I was interested,” Abell said. “The information was out there and I went in and asked the City Attorney what someone would need to do to file a suit.”

Abell said all he knew about the rumblings of a lawsuit was what he heard around town and read in the papers.

“It was my understanding that the city could not do anything, that they have to accept that he is what he is. Kay Clem’s offi ce and somebody else gave their opinion that the city was just a conduit for the election process.”

“The whole thing is very bizarre, and all I’m telling you from my point of view is that I lived in Vermont and I can’t go to Vermont and rent a house in Vermont and run for office there.”

Wheeler said he wishes people would place fault in the proper place over this mess — not with Wilson and not with whoever is behind or has funded this lawsuit. He said the City of Vero Beach is clearly to blame for the taxpayers having to deal with and pay for the lawsuit.

“My opinion is that this could have been stopped,” he said. “If there had been a concern at the city, they should have handled this before the people voted. I would think that they would have the authority to say he was not eligible to run.”

To that, Vitunac responded that the city had its hands tied because “no member of the public filed such a suit. The City itself is not authorized to do so. The City has always held that under the City Charter Mr. Wilson was not qualified to run. However, the attorney for the Division of Elections for the State of Florida ruled that the City must take the application of any candidate who swears that he is qualifi ed and let the matter be determined in court.”

Wheeler said the city should have rejected Wilson’s papers, or filed an injunction and let the court sort it out, rather than trying to get a re-do now that they don’t like the outcome of the election.

“They didn’t do anything based on the fact that they thought Charlie would lose and they also didn’t count on Brian winning,” he said. “Now they want to overturn the will of the voters,” he said. “If you don’t like the rules, then change them, but the election is over.”