Wilson's signature saga
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.
At the heart of the latest controversy swirling around Wilson was the disclosure a week ago by 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.
Going a step further, Clem suggested that the signatures looked a lot like Wilson’s handwriting – an assertion that drew a heated Wilson denial.
From that point, the matter 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.
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 Vero Beach 32963 he now believes the in question petitions were improperly collected by his volunteers – possibly including by his 23-yearold son and his son’s girlfriend -- and said he has given investigators a full list of everyone involved in gathering petitions.
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.
Wilson contends there is no legal imperative on him to verify that petitions are either complete or accurate when he or any candidate turns them in to the Supervisor of Elections.
“It is my responsibility to turn them in to her to be checked, it’s not my responsibility to check them, the law says it’s for her to check them,” he said. “If it was the candidate’s responsibility, then every candidate would be liable for a felony every time a wife signed her husband’s name to a petition.”
“Isn’t that convenient?” Clem rhetorically asked earlier this week when she, the media and Wilson sat down to review some 20 petitions she pulled as examples of those she believes are fraudulent.
“They all start looking alike,” Clem said, paging through the petitions – “same pen, same slant.”
She told Wilson that the petitions should have been checked. “This is like a test period” for the candidates, she said, to see if they can follow the rules and the laws. If elected, the candidates would be responsible for making rules and laws.
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-thancandid 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.
The allegations made by Clem that the signatures on the petitions resembled Wilson’s own hand, Wilson continues to say, are “blatantly false” and he said on the radio that some of the petitions appeared to be in a flowery hand, as if a woman or young girl had written and signed them.
Wilson said all his campaign volunteers who were on board at the time are potentially being questioned. He said it’s almost impossible to get to all the people who had access to his petitions, as they were being signed at fairs and other venues.
County Commissioner Bob Solari, who is not up for reelection and has stayed on the sidelines regarding the latest Wilson developments, said he didn’t know much about the nitty gritty of the investigation but thought Wheeler’s involvement on the Rhett Palmer show, might have unintended consequences.
“Politically, I think there’s deep irony in this,” Solari said. “The Gary Wheeler-Charlie Wilson clash on the Rhett Palmer Show, from what I heard, they went at each other pretty hard.
“Gary has been spending an awful lot of time going after Charlie Wilson and this will probably be a problem for Charlie, but the irony is that it will probably turn out to end up helping Joe Flescher, who Gary has also come out against.”
Last month, Wheeler openly circulated a police report of a crime still unsolved naming Flescher as a “person of interest” in the theft of Wheeler’s Palm Pilot to attack Flescher’s credibility.
Wheeler has endorsed Simchick for the District 2 race.
Meanwhile, Clem said that FDLE is continuing its investigation and, as such, she would be refraining from further comment on the Wilson signatures.
“I’m sitting and waiting,” she said.