St. Lucie sheriff not transparent about private fundraiser, campaign contributions, felon ties

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Keith Pearson claimed to be shocked when Gov. Ron DeSantis abruptly appointed him to serve as St. Lucie County sheriff Dec. 1, the same Friday that former Sheriff Ken Mascara just as abruptly announced his retirement because of health reasons.

At his first news conference the following Monday, Pearson said he hadn't thought about running for sheriff before, but decided over the weekend to file paperwork to run for the job, citing DeSantis' support as his basis for believing he's qualified.

His "aw, shucks, I'll do it" attitude seemed a little disingenuous, particularly since signs inside and outside the sheriff's headquarters were updated over that weekend to reflect the leadership change that had taken place.

Editorial: Is appointed St. Lucie County Sheriff Keith Pearson violating Florida open records laws?

His decision to run for the seat also caught leaders of the St. Lucie County Republican Party off guard, since they had already thrown their support behind another candidate.

There are, however, quite a few things Pearson hasn't shared with the public since taking office, pending this fall's election results.

Were St. Lucie sheriff's transition plans worked out in advance?

St. Lucie County Sheriff Keith Pearson speaks during a press conference following the death of Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Zachary Fink, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, in Port St. Lucie at Christ Fellowship Church. Fink was in pursuit of a fleeing felon, when he collided with a semi-truck on I-95, FHP officials said. The truck driver died at the scene. Fink, 26, was taken to HCA Lawnwood Hospital in Fort Pierce, where he died.

On Nov. 15, roughly two weeks before DeSantis granted Pearson the interim appointment, the governor visited the headquarters of Missionary Flights International, located at Treasure Coast International Airport in Fort Pierce, for a lunchtime fundraiser for his presidential campaign, hosted by Anthony DiFrancesco.

DiFrancesco is a Fort Pierce businessman, convicted felon and political ally of Pearson's. Pearson attended the fundraiser and had his photo taken with the governor and Jarret Romanello, executive director of the St. Lucie Sheriff's Police Athletic League.

Romanello shared the photo with friends and, at least for a while, it was posted on a local social media site before being removed.

Less than a week after the fundraiser, on Nov. 20, Anthony was one of five DiFrancescos who generously donated directly to DeSantis' then-active presidential campaign and two associated political action committees.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Anthony, Carol, Michael, Patrick and Steven DiFrancesco each contributed $6,600, the maximum allowed, to the DeSantis campaign that day. Each of the five, who are listed as Florida residents, also donated $5,000 each to Great American Comeback and $11,600 each to Team DeSantis, the two PACs.

The only exception was Steven DiFrancesco, who was listed as having made a $12,600 contribution to Team DeSantis, rather than the $11,600 given by the other four.

Keith Pearson's mother listed among DeSantis contributors

St. Lucie County Sheriff Keith Pearson discusses the case of an illegal animal slaughterhouse during a press conference on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, at the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s office in Fort Pierce.
St. Lucie County Sheriff Keith Pearson discusses the case of an illegal animal slaughterhouse during a press conference on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, at the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s office in Fort Pierce.

FEC records don't show any contributions made to DeSantis or his PACs by Keith Pearson during that time. The records do show a $2,000 contribution by Karen Pearson, Keith Pearson's mother, on the same date as the donations made by the DiFrancescos.

When contacted by telephone, Karen Pearson had little to say about making any such contribution.

"I'm not sure what you're talking about. I'm in the middle of a renovation and I don't really have time to talk right now," she said before hanging up. I asked her to call back at a more convenient time, but she never did.

Keith Pearson didn't respond to messages asking about his mother's contribution to the campaign.

The Nov. 15 fundraiser wasn't the governor's first dealing with Anthony DiFrancesco. DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet issued a full pardon to him Jan. 18, 2023, restoring his civil rights.

Pardoned from what, you may ask?

Anthony DiFrancesco has a lengthy criminal record, including arrests on 32 separate occasions between 1985 and 1994, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records.

An FDLE report details the charges against Anthony DiFrancesco during that time, including a number of felonies. Those charges include assault, aggravated battery, burglary, robbery with a firearm, discharging a firearm in public, trespassing, illegal possession of a weapon, possession of cocaine, possession of marijuana, perjury, disorderly conduct and failure to appear.

Some of those charges were dismissed, but the records show Anthony DiFrancesco was sentenced to prison more than a half-dozen times. The report isn't clear on how much time he served, but the sentences cover more than 20 years.

Anthony DiFrancesco pardon shrouded in mystery

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to the audience during his visit to the Indian River State College Eastman Advanced Workforce Training Complex on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, in Fort Pierce. DeSantis presented IRSC with a 4$ million grant during his visit.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to the audience during his visit to the Indian River State College Eastman Advanced Workforce Training Complex on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, in Fort Pierce. DeSantis presented IRSC with a 4$ million grant during his visit.

So why did the governor and Cabinet choose to pardon DiFrancesco, and who might have testified on his behalf before that happened? That's not information the governor's office wants to share.

"After consideration of your request, the Executive Office of the Governor respectfully declines to release any records or information pursuant to your January 5, 2024, request," Desiree Weeks, deputy director of communications for the Florida Commission on Offender Review, responded by email to an inquiry about the circumstances surrounding DiFrancesco's pardon. "This concludes the Commission’s responsibilities related to your January 5, 2024, request for executive clemency information or records."

From the language of that response, it seems like DeSantis could have provided more details, but chose not to.

Associating with a pardoned convicted felon may seem more politically palatable to DeSantis and Pearson when financial contributions are involved.

Since Pearson opened a campaign account to run for sheriff, Anthony DiFrancesco and his family have been generous givers to that effort as well.

The DiFrancescos and companies with family members listed as officers or registered agents have contributed at least $11,000 to Pearson's campaign to date, according to records kept by the St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections office.

The family may have other political ambitions beyond supporting DeSantis' and Pearson's campaigns.

Jamie Fowler, who was elected to a seat on the St. Lucie County Commission in 2022, is the operations and community outreach manager for Tri-County Enterprises LLC, one of the businesses owned by the DiFrancesco family.

Other family-run businesses include Tri-County Towing, Tri-County Farms, Salon Bangz LLC and DiFrancesco Enterprises LLC.

There have been rumors circulating that Michael DiFrancesco, Anthony's brother, might seek one of the commission's other seats, while Anthony's name has popped up as a potential candidate for Fort Pierce mayor.

Anthony DiFrancesco changed his voter registration information to an address inside the city limits in November 2022, which means he would apparently meet the two-year residency requirement for that office by the November election.

Preston Michael DiFrancesco, Anthony's nephew, has already registered to run for sheriff, joining Pearson in a Republican primary field that also includes Richard Del Toro Jr., the local party's endorsed candidate, and Rich Williams. Democratic candidates for the seat include Steven Giordano and Indony Pierre Jean Baptiste. Preston DiFrancesco seems to be acting independently of the other family members who have donated to Pearson's campaign.

The primaries will be held in August, ahead of the Nov. 5 general election.

Hard to believe the 'coincidences' in this case


Keith Pearson, Anthony DiFrancesco and DeSantis haven't responded to numerous attempts to contact them over several weeks about the information outlined in this column.

So that gets back to the original point: Was DeSantis' decision to appoint Pearson, a mid-level employee in the sheriff's office before Dec. 1, really so shocking? To the outside world, maybe so. To the men's inner circle of political allies, maybe not.

This column reflects the opinion of Blake Fontenay. Contact him via email at or at 772-232-5424.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Keith Pearson hasn't been honest about sheriff appointment by DeSantis