Marion County Undersheriff Dan Kuhn resigns over affair
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 11:48 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 2:56 p.m.
A day after a former mistress publicly revealed details of an 18-month affair, Undersheriff Dan Kuhn dropped out of the race for Marion County sheriff on Thursday, leaving Republicans scrambling to find a replacement candidate just a month before the election.
The scandal also drove Kuhn to resign his position as second-in-command at the Sheriff' Office.
Kuhn, who won the Republican sheriff's primary in August, succumbed to mounting pressure not just from critics but also from his supporters, including Sheriff Ed Dean, who had mentored Kuhn during his career and endorsed Kuhn to succeed him.
Local Republicans now must pick a replacement nominee in the suddenly chaotic sheriff's contest to take on Constitution Party candidate Bernie DeCastro.
That choice must be made quickly.
Once Elections Supervisor Dee Brown formally notifies the state Republican Party of Kuhn's decision, the county Republican Executive Committee, or REC, has a week to select a new nominee.
Brown's office said Kuhn called them Thursday to notify them he was dropping out, but it wasn't clear exactly when he would deliver his withdrawal notice.
"I have made some poor decisions which have come to light and hurt those I love the most and the community I have served," Kuhn said in a statement that he said was issued "with a heavy heart."
"Along the way my family has not always come first and that needs to change. It is with this in mind that I want to own up to my misgivings and help bring healing to those I have hurt," he added. "I ask for your understanding as I take this much needed time to focus on my family."
Kuhn's decade-long career and chance to be the next sheriff unraveled after Melissa Cook, headmistress at Hale Academy, a private school in Ocala, went public with details of her relationship with Kuhn.
The affair began in October 2010 and ended this past April after Cook's husband, Wayne, demanded that she choose between him and Kuhn.
Cook's damning revelation, during an interview Wednesday with the Star-Banner, included accounts of the pair having sex at Kuhn's office and at his home while he was on duty and of his use of government vehicles to transport her to, or meet her for, trysts.
Cook told the Star-Banner she believed the issue might have gone away had Kuhn lost the primary election to Chris Blair, the former head of the agency's major crimes unit.
Once Kuhn won that contest and stood poised to become sheriff, however, the public needed to know how he had abused his office, Cook maintained.
Both the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Sheriff's Office's Internal Affairs unit are investigating Cook's accusations. It's unclear how long that might take, although Dean has asked for the matter to be expedited.
Since Kuhn won the Republican primary, state law mandates that his name remain on the ballot as the Republican candidate.
In fact, he may already have some votes.
Deputy Elections Supervisor Wesley Wilcox said elections officials have received 165 of the nearly 32,000 absentee mail-in ballots that have been issued so far.
Any mail-in ballot already marked for Kuhn will be considered a vote for the eventual Republican nominee, Wilcox said.
He added that elections officials will work to avoid Election Day confusion by posting signs in the precincts and in the voting booths spelling out that a vote for Kuhn would really be a vote for the GOP candidate, while votes for DeCastro and Judson Spence, a formally declared write-in candidate, will be recorded for them.
Some local Republicans see runner-up Blair as the natural choice for the party's nominee.
Blair said Thursday he was "definitely interested" in succeeding Kuhn as the candidate and was lobbying party leaders to choose him.
But other GOP members, including some party leaders who had supported Kuhn, are suggesting Republicans could coalesce behind another candidate, Kerry Crawford, a retired Sheriff's Office major who spent 36 years in law enforcement. All but five of those years were with the Sheriff's Office.
Crawford's potential liability is that he was Kuhn's campaign manager.
Yet in considering Blair, the REC would have to mull over the fact that Blair got just 47 percent of the GOP vote in August, when just two of every five Republicans cast ballots.
According to state law, REC Chairman Roy Abshier must soon call a meeting of the committee to vet and select the new nominee.
According to records kept by Brown's office that were current as of August, the committee has 46 members.
Eight of them contributed money to Blair's campaign, although some Kuhn supporters dot the roster.
Joe Little, a University of Florida law professor, said his reading of the law governing this process indicates the full committee will have a say in choosing Kuhn's replacement and that nothing excludes Blair from being selected.
Lewis Dinkins, Marion's Republican state committeeman, said this was the first time he could recall the party having to do this.
"We will do what we've got to do to find a candidate," said Dinkins.
Internet rumblings from Blair supporters suggest launching a write-in campaign to elect Blair.
That would be a mistake, Wilcox said.
"A write-in campaign is not going to be successful," Wilcox said. "A write-in vote for anyone other than Judson Spence will not be tabulated — not Mom, not Elvis and not Chris Blair."
Kuhn's indiscretion rippled elsewhere, as his wife, Tajai, resigned her post as a first- and second-grade teacher at Hale Academy — where, until quitting on Tuesday, she had worked for her husband's mistress.
Cook, however, still has a job, said William Alan King, chairman of Hale Academy's board.
King said no formal decision has been made about Cook's employment. The board is awaiting the conclusion of the FDLE and Internal Affairs investigations, King said.
Cook, he added, has been granted a leave of absence.
In the interim, Kim Heitmuller, assistant head of school and director of guidance, will run Hale's daily operations.
King described the situation as a "distraction" but added, "We're focused on the kids and their education."
He also said he's not aware of any parents or faculty members expressing concerns about the scandal.
The end came for Kuhn on Thursday during a conversation with sheriff's Chief Towles Bigelow, who contacted Kuhn at Sheriff Dean's request.
Kuhn told Bigelow over the phone that he was quitting.
"In view of the resignation of Dan Kuhn from the very office he seeks to be elected, coupled with admission of the extramarital affair which is at the center of the very serious pending allegations, I believe it would be impossible for Dan Kuhn to effectively lead the Sheriff's Office in accordance with its established core values," Dean said.
"The public's interest is best served by Dan's withdrawal as candidate for sheriff," said Dean, who pointed out that he would have fired Kuhn had he not quit.
The sheriff said the twin investigations will continue despite Kuhn's departure because he wants to know if other deputies knew about the affair and abetted it.
Dean also said he will not appoint a new undersheriff before leaving office in January. Bigelow will become second in command as chief of staff.
Crawford, who rose through the ranks to become one of Dean's top commanders, said he was "humbled" and "flattered" at being considered to replace Kuhn.
"I've received a lot of support to do this and I'm encouraged by it," he said.
Crawford said the organization and the community needs "some healing" and they need to know "there's a direction and light at the end of the tunnel."
"I think it's important to provide leadership and focus that will provide some confidence and direction for the both the organization and the community," Crawford said.
He noted that he wanted to "provide the community with some assurance that I'm a qualified candidate."
"I'm capable and willing to be their sheriff," Crawford said.
Crawford added that despite running Kuhn's campaign he had no knowledge of his relationship with Cook, and neither condoned nor approved of the affair.
Blair, a 35-year veteran of the agency, said, "I'm definitely interested in the position. I've spent a couple of years campaigning for the position, I've got outstanding support from the community and it would be an honor to serve the citizens of Marion County."
"I've had many people making contact with the Republican leaders," Blair said. "They know my experience, my integrity and qualifications for the job. It's going to take leadership and experience to restore the public's trust."
As for Kuhn, Blair said, "I feel sorry for him and his family. I think he should concentrate on his family, and my thoughts and prayers are with them."
Constitution Party candidate Bernie DeCastro said Kuhn's departure will not cause him to alter his campaign strategy.
"I think he did the honorable thing," DeCastro said of Kuhn.
DeCastro has some personal baggage of his own to overcome if he hopes to sway voters in November. Besides running as a minor-party candidate, he is a convicted felon who was sentenced to life in prison on an armed robbery charge before he was paroled in 1984. He was pardoned by Governor Lawton Chiles in 1994 and his civil rights were restored.
He now runs a re-entry program to help former prison inmates successfully get back into the community.