Marion County Sheriff Blair dismisses critical grand jury report
Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 7:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 7:11 p.m.
OCALA -- Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair on Friday dismissed a grand jury report critical of the way he handled his campaign finances, saying the scathing three-page report was the opinion of one person and did not reflect what the 18-member grand jury actually believed.
The grand jury issued its presentment on May 1, but it did not become public until last week. The panel had been asked to review the work of Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents, who investigated an anonymous tip that Blair accepted large, illegal campaign donations during his run for office last year. State law prohibits political candidates from accepting donations larger than $500 from a single person, company or organization.
After reviewing the FDLE investigation and interviewing Blair and other witnesses, the grand jury concluded in its report that while Blair did not technically violate the law, he flouted the spirit of the law by not identifying the source of $28,000 that went into his campaign coffers.
The grand jury determined that Blair funded his campaign with at least $18,000 from a local physician, Dr. Vincent Palmire, who is related to Blair by marriage. Blair also received a $10,000 personal loan from Palmire that he deposited into his campaign account.
The grand jury was particularly interested in the $18,000. According to the report, Blair created a company called Chrissan Investments LLC weeks before he declared his candidacy for sheriff in 2011.
In the summer of 2012, while Blair and opponent Dan Kuhn were waging a close and expensive battle for the Republican nomination, Palmire deposited 15 checks from seven companies into a Chrissan Investments bank account. The checks totaled more than $28,000.
Almost immediately, Blair wrote checks from the account to himself totaling $18,000 and then deposited those checks into his campaign account.
The grand jury said in its report that it was "impossible" to determine whether a crime had been committed. That was because of the "conflicting and inconsistent" testimony offered by some of the witnesses, the report states. Grand jurors did not elaborate on who offered the conflicting testimony or what it was.
The panel, though, was critical of the sheriff's actions.
"Based on the totality of the circumstances," the report states, "the grand jury finds that Mr. Blair, intentionally or not, effectively hid a principal source of his campaign funding for his campaign for sheriff: Dr. Vincent Palmire. This action is contrary to the spirit and the intent of Florida's campaign finance laws."
The grand jury members said they "cannot condone the actions of now-Sheriff Blair regarding his campaign finance activity." They also reminded the sheriff that merely "complying with the strict letter of the law is not sufficient for the elected officials of Marion County."
"Whatever Mr. Blair's intentions, his actions create an appearance of impropriety," the report states.
On Friday, Blair broke his silence about the matter. He said the criticisms in the report do not reflect the grand jury's feelings but were the opinions of "one attorney" who authored the report. While he would not identify who he was talking about, presumably it was an assistant state attorney who aided the grand jury in its inquiry.
He also said the allegations that led to the grand jury inquiry were baseless and were part of a politically motivated "conspiracy," although he declined to say who was behind the alleged conspiracy.
Speaking about the campaign funding, Blair said he did not open Chrissan Investments LLC for campaign purposes. The sheriff explained that upon retiring from the Sheriff's Office in December 2010, where he ended his 35-year career as head of the agency's major crimes unit, he had an opportunity to teach at the College of Central Florida.
He added that under state law he couldn't be employed directly by CF for a year after leaving the Sheriff's Office. So he created Chrissan Investments in order to be paid as a contractor. Blair said CF paid him at least once, although he didn't recall when.
An official with the state Division of Management Services, which oversees the state's retirement program, said the law requires a post-retirement cooling off period of just six months.
Blair acknowledged that he received thousands of dollars from Palmire, including the $10,000 loan and the $28,000 that went into Chrissan Investments.
But he said he checked with a number of politicians, attorneys and an accountant before withdrawing money from the LLC and depositing it into his campaign account. They advised him that as long as the LLC paid the money to him personally, it became his money and he could then use it for the campaign.
So Blair had a bank teller execute two checks for $9,000 apiece to him from Chrissan LLC, then immediately endorsed them and deposited them into his campaign account.
Blair said the loan was "not an issue" with either the grand jurors or State Attorney Bill Cervone, the Gainesville-based special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to review FDLE's findings.
The panel instead was most concerned about the pair of July 2012 transactions that shifted money from the LLC to Blair and then to his campaign account, Blair said.
The grand jury found that had Blair not taken the intermediate step of putting the money into his personal account, he would have violated campaign-finance laws.
That's because Chrissan Investments — a company made up of Blair, his wife and daughter — was a distinct legal entity and thus subject to the state's limit on political contributions.
Blair asserted it was all completely legal, and that when he explained it to Cervone, the prosecutor said he was satisfied but still wanted the grand jury to decide rather than make the determination himself.
Blair stressed that he was not trying to hide anything, but deposited Palmire's money into Chrissan Investments because that was the advice of Palmire's accountant — whose decision he didn't question.
Blair emphasized that all of Palmire's funding was a loan and that he still owes him more than $38,000.
He said it will have to be reported in additional filings with state officials, but not yet.
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