FBI abruptly halted probe of Stearns’ campaign
Published: Friday, February 7, 2014 at 5:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 7, 2014 at 5:27 p.m.
Two years ago, Jimmy Jett unleashed a sensational accusation: Supporters of then-U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns had offered him campaign funding or jobs to get out of the election for a redrawn congressional seat.
Recently obtained FBI documents show that federal authorities were, in fact, investigating the claims. The records suggest officials at the highest levels of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice initially moved quickly to confirm Jett's allegation — but then almost as quickly squelched attempts to gather evidence.
The reason for the shift is not explained. The FBI heavily redacted the documents, citing legal exemptions that protect against an unwarranted invasion of privacy of the people involved, as well as rules prohibiting the disclosure of certain investigative techniques.
While the agency furnished 35 pages, references in the file suggest the report was at least 61 pages. Thus, key details are missing from the conversations investigators taped between Jett and Stearns' middle men — Jim Horne, a former Florida education secretary, and Orange Park businessman Jud Sapp — as are clues about the identities and motives of the officials in Washington who pulled the plug on a potential sting operation.
Repeated efforts to reach Stearns for comment on this story were unsuccessful. Stearns all along has denied any wrongdoing. A spokesman for the FBI in Jacksonville declined to comment on the report.
Jett, a Fleming Island resident who left public office at the end of 2012, after 26 years in Clay County government as its court clerk and as a county commissioner, took some consolation in the release of the records.
He was immediately lambasted by Stearns' supporters and Republican Party officials after he went public, and he believes the FBI records, albeit incomplete, give credence to his story.
Still, he's not yet satisfied. "I'm disappointed the truth didn't come out," Jett said in reference to the redactions.
Coming forward and the subsequent response, he said, "damaged my candidacy, hurt my reputation and entirely ruined my legacy as a public servant.
"I'm not going to stop because I want the truth to come out, at least in Clay County. I'm going to pursue this until my reputation is restored," he said.
Stearns, Jett, former state Sen. Steve Oelrich and Ted Yoho were battling in the Republican primary for the 3rd Congressional District, a sprawling territory that stretches across North Florida from the Gulf of Mexico to the Jacksonville suburbs. It includes portions of Marion and Alachua counties.
Yoho eventually won the primary and the general election, ending Stearns' 24-year career on Capitol Hill.
In March 2012 Jett told a gathering of GOP voters that Stearns' backers in Clay County tried to bribe him to quit the campaign.
In a political context, Jett's departure would have removed the potential hometown favorite in the part of the new district richest in Republican votes.
Jett had said Stearns was willing to support him at the outset, but then the Ocala Republican opted to run in the 3rd District instead of the reconfigured 11th District that included his hometown and most of Marion County.
Jett asserted the FBI had the evidence to back him up on the attempted bribes.
Stearns and his supporters emphatically denied the charge, painting Jett publicly as a liar and malcontent.
And since the FBI was unwilling to reveal details of Jett's allegations, the burgeoning scandal quickly died down.
Yet the newly released records, obtained pursuant to a public records request, show that FBI agents and Justice Department officials sped to validate Jett's assertions.
And based on initial evidence they gathered, investigators were prepared to conduct a sting.
But the undercover operation was shut down just moments before Jett was supposed to walk into the meeting and secretly record a conversation.
Jett believes the "armchair quarterbacking" from the Justice Department's highest echelons was rooted in politics.
He maintains they backed out because House Speaker John Boehner, who was in Clay County at the time on a fundraising swing, was set to attend the meeting, and Washington scuttled the plan rather than deal with the fallout of scooping up the nation's third most powerful politician in a controversy he likely had no knowledge of.
Jett, according to the FBI file, first reported what he considered to be bribery attempts on Feb. 29, 2012, about a month after he said Stearns' operatives began approaching him.
He told investigators, and later reporters, that in return for getting out, Horne and Sapp dangled offers of having his campaign expenses reimbursed, of appointments to the U.S. Marshals Service or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, or of landing a political consulting or lobbying gig.
"Anything he wants," as the FBI reported the offer.
On March 1 a pair of FBI investigators based in Jacksonville — identified by Jett as special agents Byron Thompson and Blanka Sanchez Gilbert — took Jett's statement.
During that meeting Jett consented to having them tape his phone calls to Horne and Sapp.
After the meeting with Jett, according to government documents, FBI officials in Jacksonville held a conference call with representatives of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section and of U.S. Attorney Pamela Marsh.
The discussion was about the "recognized sensitive circumstances" surrounding Jett's claim, and apparently led to a request for a review of that by the FBI's Public Corruption Unit in Washington.
The FBI blocked out summaries of the conversation in the documents provided to Jett and this newspaper.
But a report compiled by one of the agents says that senior FBI and Justice Department officials green-lighted Jett to make the calls to Horne and Sapp, which would be recorded, around 8:25 p.m. on March 1.
As the agents listened in, four calls took place between Jett and the others. Only Jett's side of the conversation was reported in the documents.
In a conversation that Jett, in an interview, indicated was with Sapp, Jett pointed out that he was willing to "put my own selfishness away" and "do whatever is best for the Republican Party."
He also mentions the employment offers and reimbursement of campaign expenses.
At one point during a discussion that Jett said was with Horne, Jett noted, "I'd like to meet with the Speaker, but let's do that separately."
By 9:30 p.m. on March 1, according to the agent's report, investigators had notified their superiors locally and in Washington that the calls had been successfully recorded.
The higher-level officials "agreed that Jett's allegations were corroborated by the conversations he recorded and ... that further approvals to record ... were warranted," the report states.
On March 2, the recordings were played again and the senior investigators agreed to support a request by the Jacksonville FBI agents to record the face-to-face meeting between Jett, Stearns and his backers.
That meeting was scheduled for 3:30 p.m. that day at Sapp's house.
The agent's report indicates those top officials had one concern. Jett, they advised, sounded "too agreeable," and that tone might undermine the necessary element of Jett being pressured or coerced to end his campaign.
The agent then reiterated that Jett had repeatedly, unequivocally and consistently insisted that he was not getting out of the election. His comments were intended to "play a role for the FBI," the agent added.
The report further related that the investigators working with Jett continued throughout the day on March 2 to obtain approval for Jett to wear a wire into the pivotal afternoon meeting.
Yet, according to the agent's summary, word came down twice within two hours of the meeting that Jett was not authorized to record the gathering.
The agents with Jett were told "the final decision by FBI headquarters and DOJ (Department of Justice) was to disapprove FBI Jacksonville's request for Jett to make further recordings," the file states.
That included in-person meetings or telephone calls.
The agent does note that senior officials wanted Jett to contact Horne and Sapp again and recant his statements about dropping out, and that he was directed to not go to the meeting at Sapp's home.
"FBI headquarters, Public Corruption Unit, required this phone call," the agent wrote.
The FBI redacted possible explanations for the shelving of the agents' request to wire Jett and for him to make that call to Sapp or Horne.
Jett protested that he had no reason to go, if the FBI would not allow him to record the meeting, but that it was too late to back out now, the report indicates.
He had already "taken great personal risk and jeopardized his campaign" by working with the FBI to this point, the agent reported.
Against their advice to not reveal his cooperation with authorities, Jett went to the meeting and announced that he would remain a candidate and had worked with the FBI.
The agent closed his report by noting that Jett discussed details of the meeting at Sapp's about 90 minutes after leaving investigators. The FBI did not release details of that follow-up conversation.
Jett said he has obtained documents about the case from the FBI, and they, like the set provided to the newspaper, were greatly redacted. He has filed an appeal with the FBI, he added, and will take the agency to federal court if he is unhappy with the reply.
"I want the conversations. I want all of it," Jett said.
Contact Bill Thompson at 867-4117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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