Cervone will handle state probe of Marion County sheriff-elect


Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 6:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 6:39 p.m.

OCALA — State Attorney Bill Cervone has taken over ongoing state investigations related to the Marion County sheriff's election, after Marion County's state attorney, Brad King, recused himself from the cases.

Citing his past professional relationships with both former Marion County undersheriff Dan Kuhn and Sheriff-elect Chris Blair, both of whom are under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, King asked Gov. Rick Scott to relieve him in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Scott granted the request and turned over the cases to Cervone, whose office is in Gainesville. A reference in the governor's executive order appointing Cervone was the first official indication that investigators were sniffing around Blair's campaign accounts.

Cervone, a Republican, is the chief prosecutor in the 8th Judicial Circuit, a six-county region that includes Alachua and Levy counties.

The appointment took effect Nov. 21 and runs for a year.

FDLE agents and the Sheriff's Office's Internal Affairs unit are investigating Kuhn for official misconduct and malfeasance related to Kuhn's extramarital affair with Melissa Cook, the former principal at Hale Academy in Ocala.

Kuhn won the Republican primary for sheriff in August, defeating Blair. Yet the revelation of the affair in early October forced Kuhn to quit the campaign and his job as second-in-command at the Marion County Sheriff's Office.

The local Republican Executive Committee subsequently named Blair as its candidate.

Last month Blair cruised to victory over Constitution Party candidate Bernie DeCastro, capturing 72 percent of the vote.

On Nov. 7, the day after the election, FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey asked Sheriff Ed Dean to delay Blair's transition for 30 days, essentially barring him from the sheriff's headquarters.

FDLE agents are looking into whether Blair violated campaign finance laws.

King had endorsed Kuhn during the primary contest, and beyond his duties as a

prosecutor, King also had served with Blair as a Marion deputy in the 1970s.

In an interview after Kuhn exited the race, King said he had found some investigations spearheaded by Blair, the former head of the Sheriff's Office's major crimes unit, were "disconcerting" because he believed Blair's team had withheld some information.

It doesn't appear FDLE will conclude its inquiry into Blair's alleged campaign finance violations before the window Bailey requested closes. It's unclear how that affects the investigation.

Blair is scheduled to take the helm in about a month. He is now attending an orientation seminar for newly elected sheriffs in Tallahassee.

Blair came to FDLE's attention after an anonymous tipster called Crime Stoppers of Marion County on Nov. 1.

King's office had looked into Blair's finances previously.

On one occasion Kuhn's supporters had charged that Blair had broken the law by passing bad checks and accepting contributions that exceeded the lawful $500 limit for individuals.

Prosecutors reviewed those reports and subpoenaed Blair's campaign bank records. It turned out that two bad checks had been written to Blair's campaign and not by Blair, thus making him the victim.

As for the allegation that some of Blair's contributors exceeded the maximum donation, King's staff concluded those were inadvertent.

Yet there was another allegation during the campaign that Blair was accepting contributions from outside sources and declaring them in his campaign records as his own funds, loaned from his personal account.

Prosecutors reviewed that and could not substantiate with concrete details or iron-clad witnesses that any money laundering was occurring.

Then came the tip from Crime Stoppers.

King's staff, FDLE officials and Sheriff Dean have declined to discuss the basis of that allegation. Dean, however, has said the charge was detailed and credible enough to prompt him to ask FDLE to review it.

Cervone said he knew little about the case because he has yet to meet with FDLE investigators to learn about its progress. He also said that Scott's hand-off does not mean the state is moving closer to prosecuting anyone.

Swapping out prosecutors in probes that might contain conflicts happens fairly regularly, h

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