Justice Dept., FBI refuse to release records in Stearns probe
Published: Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 9:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 9:08 p.m.
In March 2012, Republican congressional candidate Jimmy Jett went public with a blockbuster accusation.
Jett, who served as Clay County’s clerk of the circuit court, claimed a pair of prominent supporters of then-Congressman Cliff Stearns had sought to bribe him to drop out of the race for a new congressional seat.
Jett said the go-betweens — Jim Horne, formerly Florida’s education secretary, and Jud Sapp, a prominent Clay County businessman — acted with Stearns’ full knowledge in offering him federal jobs or money to repay campaign loans.
He claimed the FBI had evidence of the plot, as a pair of agents recorded at his home nearly identical phone calls from both men relaying the offer.
Yet the sensational allegation fizzled almost as quickly as it emerged, and Jett’s calls for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to explain why it soured on pursuing his accusations have gone unanswered.
Offering a federal job “ ‘as consideration, favor or reward’ for political support” is a violation of federal law, though it’s difficult to prosecute, according to Jan Baran, a Washington-based lawyer.
In June, both the FBI and Attorney General Eric Holder’s office declined the Ocala Star-Banner’s requests to release records of the investigation under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
Jett, in a recent interview, said federal officials stonewalled him as well.
“I’m deeply disappointed that the investigation did not conclude as they had assured me. And I’m deeply disappointed that they will not release these records,” Jett said. “They are the premier law enforcement agency in our country, and I have the deepest respect for what they do. But to clear my name and set the record straight, I want these records and tapes released.”
Jett is convinced the two investigators he dealt with — Special Agents Byron Thompson and Blanka Sanchez Gilbert — wanted to pursue the case, especially after hearing discussions of the proposals from Sapp and Horne.
But he also believes high-ranking FBI officials in Washington pulled back on the agents for fear of implicating not just the former congressman but also Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Boehner visited Clay County at the time on a fundraising swing with Stearns.
Following last November’s elections, an FBI official in Jacksonville, the field office that handled Jett’s case, told the Star-Banner that the Stearns investigation was closed. He declined to say more about the case.
In December, the newspaper filed a FOIA request with the FBI seeking records related to Jett’s allegations. It made a similar request to Holder’s office.
In mid-May, FBI spokesman David Sobonya said in an email that the request had been assigned to an analyst on April 30 and the files were being reviewed.
Yet in June, both the Justice Department and the FBI issued letters to the Star-Banner denying the requests.
“I have decided to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any such records,” Vanessa Brinkman, a lawyer with the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, wrote on Holder’s behalf.
“(E)ven to acknowledge the existence of such records would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” she added.
Brinkman cited exemptions in the FOIA law that allow the government to withhold information because its release would mean delving into personnel or medical records.
An official with the Office of Information Policy declined to comment on the case until an appeal that the Star-Banner intends to file is concluded.
For its part, the FBI, despite having indicated nearly two months earlier that staffers were combing agency files for the records, informed the Star-Banner in a letter that it, too, could neither confirm nor deny that such documents existed, or that Stearns had ever been of “investigatory interest” to the agency.
Yet, according to the letter, authored by David Hardy, chief of the FBI’s information dissemination section, the records the FBI declined to acknowledge even existed also could not be made public because doing so might disclose techniques, procedures or guidelines used by its agents.
“Acknowledging the FBI’s interest invites the risk of circumvention of federal law enforcement efforts,” Hardy wrote.
Hardy also said the records could be excluded under 1986 FOIA amendments that allow the FBI to shield records because the target of the investigation might learn he or she is being investigated and interfere in the process, because confidential informants might be named and because classified records regarding intelligence gathering or terrorism might be made public.
Jett, meanwhile, filed his initial FOIA request with the FBI on Dec. 26.
On Jan. 14, Hardy wrote to Jett that while the letter should not indicate whether the records actually exist, the release of such documents could violate laws protecting an individual’s privacy.
Hardy concluded that Jett had not clearly demonstrated “that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the personal privacy interest (of those he named) and that significant public benefit would result from the disclosure of the requested records.”
Jett challenged that in a response letter, calling the public interest “substantial.”
“(T)he investigation involved elected public officials, candidates for public office and influential supporters of congressional candidates involved in the electoral process, as well as attempts to influence and corrupt this electoral process,” Jett wrote.
Hardy answered with a Feb. 19 letter relaying that the FBI headquarters was processing Jett’s request and searching its files for any information relevant to it, and urging him to track the progress on the FBI’s website.
“We will inform you of the results in future correspondence,” Hardy wrote.
Jett said that was the last he heard from the FBI.
Stearns’ former chief of staff Jack Seum issued a strong denial of Jett’s accusations on Friday.
“There was never any truth to Jimmy Jett’s allegations from day one, and that is why no one was ever contacted. Mr. Jett doesn’t have both oars in the water. He’s built his political career by trying to entrap innocent people for political gain. He has a history of it,” Seum said in email remarks to the Star-Banner.
Anne Weismann, general counsel for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was not surprised by the government’s response.
“At the same time DOJ (the Justice Department) has shown a clear reluctance to prosecute elected officials, even when there is clear evidence of criminal wrongdoing, it has fought tooth and nail to keep from the public the reasons behind its decisions not to prosecute,” Weismann wrote in an email. “We should all be concerned that in the name of privacy, DOJ seeks to throw a blanket of secrecy over all of its investigatory activities. The public needs to know that agencies like DOJ, charged with enforcing our nation’s laws, are doing their duty.”
Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director for the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press, a group that advises journalists on First Amendment matters, called the government’s stance “very aggressive.”
“Clearly, we’re talking about public officials, and there is a high public interest in knowing whether the investigation occurred,” he said. “If there was an investigation and nothing happened, then the truth shall set you free. Otherwise, the credibility of the investigatory system suffers.”
Jett said he believes the FBI’s failure to disclose what happened has hurt his credibility in his community.
“Certainly, my reputation has been damaged because people believed I was making this up for political purposes, when I actually wanted to do what was right,” Jett said.