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In the weeks since two Republican candidates said that Wayne Ivey offered to land them political jobs worth up to $50,000 a year if they left their races and backed his favored contenders, the Brevard County Sheriff’s election meddling controversy has widened.
Now, another candidate has come forward, saying that Sheriff Ivey also tried to interfere in her race for county judge — and offered to help secure her a spot as the county’s next state attorney if she agreed to drop out of the contest.
Like County Commission candidate Chris Hattaway and School Board candidate Shawn Overdorf, both current or former police officers, the source of the most recent allegations is a veteran of the criminal justice system and long-time public servant with a distinguished record.
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Kimberly Musselman, an assistant state attorney in Brevard County for nearly 20 years, told FLORIDA TODAY that she was pursued by Ivey in May to bow out of the County Court Judge Group 4 race. Ivey has endorsed one of Musselman’s opponents, injunction for protection attorney Renee Torpy.
Musselman reached out to FLORIDA TODAY after reading about Hattaway's and Overdorf's experiences. She said her decision to come forward was a matter of her integrity as a candidate for judge, even though it meant denouncing inappropriate behavior by a powerful and well-loved figure like Ivey.
During two in-person meetings, Musselman said, Ivey repeatedly said he could use his influence to help her get elected — or even appointed — as state attorney for the 18th judicial circuit, the office currently held by her boss, State Attorney Phil Archer, if she abandoned her bid for the judicial seat.
Musselman was blunt when describing the two meetings with Ivey to FLORIDA TODAY: "He said (consider) not running, and I will help you be appointed state attorney," she recalled.
After Musselman refused, she said Ivey admonished one of her major supporters, a senior government lawyer, who endorsed her for the seat and donated to her campaign, while another donor, a high-ranking government official, reportedly had their name "trashed," she said.
"My donors dried up real quick," Musselman said.
Several attempts to reach both individuals by FLORIDA TODAY were unanswered. But similar allegations of donors being pressured have been made by Hattaway, too. Hattaway told FLORIDA TODAY last week that since his story about being asked to leave the race went public, Ivey and his allies have approached some of his donors in what he described as a backdoor effort to rob him of support.
Ivey did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.
As with the cases described by Hattaway and Overdorf, Ivey’s alleged offer to Musselman could amount to a felony violation of Florida’s elections code. For some ethics experts, it also raises questions about the independence of Brevard's courts from its largest policing agency.
"It's troubling that a sheriff would involve himself in a judicial race," said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan Tallahassee government watchdog group.
Ivey — whose brand of "Constitutional Sheriff" has drawn controversy for its brash, defiant and at times cavalier attitude toward people accused of crimes in Brevard — has long maintained that elected offices at all levels of government should be aligned ideologically and politically, from the sheriff all the way to the School Board.
That has included the courts in recent months, with Ivey warning on social media that Brevard County will not accept what he has called "soft judges" on the bench.
No Ivey endorsement
Musselman has more than 30 years of criminal justice experience in her career, including serving as a probation officer and law clerk, and nearly two decades in the Brevard and Seminole Counties State Attorney’s Office, where she was first hired as an assistant state attorney in 2004.
Her efforts in the agency — which have included training dozens of new attorneys and legal interns, reviewing hundreds of arrest and search warrants and participating in grand jury presentations, she said — have helped her earn endorsements from a Who’s Who of current and former Brevard officials.
Among her supporters in the county judge race are Archer, former Clerk of Courts Scott Ellis, current Clerk of Courts Rachel Sadoff, property appraiser Dana Blickley and tax collector Lisa Cullen.
The one endorsement she doesn’t have is Ivey’s. Not that she didn’t want it, she said.
"I think some of the things he does are fantastic,” Musselman said. “He brings in a lot of people (to local charities), he brings in a lot of money. The dog stuff (he supports). He's creative."
Musselman said she intended to ask Ivey for his support when they first met to talk about her campaign the afternoon of May 20 at Kays Bar-B-Que and Steaks near Cocoa. The meeting was his idea, she said. The sheriff had sought her out for days, including multiple calls and texts from his assistant, Musselman said.
"It did seem like it was very important that we meet very quickly, all of a sudden,” she said.
But when they finally got together, it wasn’t to discuss his endorsement. He had already promised that to Torpy, he told her. Instead, Musselman said, Ivey tried to talk her out of the county court race.
"He let me kind of go through my pitch. Then he said, 'Oh, you need to be circuit court. Why didn't you come out to be circuit court earlier?'” she said. “Then he started talking about state attorney and said, 'You'd be great at that.”
“He was saying, ‘Get out of this race. This race isn't worthy of you,’ was the inference,” Musselman said. "The whole conversation was, 'You are better suited to these two things. I can help you with these two things.’”
The meeting, which Musselman said lasted about two hours, ended with Ivey asking her to “think about it,” she said. “He said he wanted to talk to me in a couple of days to see if I changed my mind.”
No specifics on proposed 'help'
The sheriff left on a trip to the U.S. border in Arizona that weekend, she said. After he returned, they met again on a Tuesday at Panera Bread in Viera. That’s when he laid the offer on the table, she said.
"He said (consider) not running, and I will help you be appointed state attorney," Musselman said. “That's when I said, 'No, absolutely not.'"
While she wasn’t clear on the context of the statement — state attorneys are elected positions, and typically only appointed when a sitting attorney resigns before their term of office ends — Musselman emphasized Ivey "meant 'appointment,' for sure," she said.
"He used both words, 'appointed' and 'elected,'" she said.
Musselman said Ivey didn't explain the context and gave no specifics about the kind of "help" he was proposing. For her part, she said, she didn’t believe him.
"I didn’t believe for a second that he would have me appointed as state attorney. He just wanted me out of the race," Musselman said. "I think he saw me as a threat" to Torpy, she said.
Still, she felt uneasy about the offer, she said. She was reluctant to talk about it at first — "I want to self-preserve a bit. I don’t know what the repercussions will be," Musselman said — but said in the end she felt it was "the right thing to do."
"I don’t want this to be about me bashing (Ivey)" or about seeking publicity, she said. She later added: "I will stand up for what's right even if I am standing alone."
"This is the point: As a judge I want to be fair and just and do the right thing, and how can I do that if I take this?" Musselman said.
A felony offer?
While some ethics and legal experts have said offers of jobs and appointments worth many tens of thousands of dollars could constitute felony bribery, there are other violations, including at least one other felony, that more directly address the alleged actions of the sheriff.
If Ivey intended to eliminate competition for his endorsed candidate, according to Wilcox of Integrity Florida, it could qualify as a misuse of public position under the Florida elections code.
Misuse of position, which prohibits elected officials from “corruptly” using their influence to gain a “special benefit” for themselves or someone else, is usually a civil violation, punishable by fines and other administrative disciplinary actions.
More seriously, it may have run afoul of F.S. 104.071, a statute in the elections code barring "remuneration" by a candidate – or a supporter of a candidate – for services or support, a third-degree felony.
Among its provisions, and with some exceptions, the law prohibits supporters from promising to secure or help in securing appointment or election to public office to any person in order to aid the election of another candidate.
Tallahassee elections attorney Ronald Meyer, who did not comment for this story due to a potential conflict of interest, referenced the statute during an interview for a prior story about the allegations from Hattaway and Overdorf.
Such promises, he said, rose above mere pledges of future support, which are a legal and common fixture in politics.
"I think it’s pretty specious in terms of the contribution or value of what’s being promised," Meyer previously said. "And yet, it’s illegal in any election to directly or indirectly promise to appoint another person, or promise to secure or aid in securing appointment or election of another person. So that’s arguably implicated in that circumstance."
Donors also targeted
Musselman also alleged Ivey has put pressure on donors to her campaign, in an apparent effort to curb her support.
Among them, she said, was a senior government lawyer and a senior local government official. Both made significant donations to her campaign.
The lawyer told her that Ivey had reached out and encouraged them to back away from her, she said, allegedly warning them that they "didn’t want to make enemies."
Neither individual responded to multiple requests for comment. FLORIDA TODAY has decided not to identify the donors as they are appointed officials who did not agree tell their side of the story.
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But Musselman's campaign financing record supports that her funding indeed "dried up" after rebuffing Ivey. Not counting loans to herself, campaign finance records show she pulled in $8,300 in the weeks before the May meetings. Since then, as of July 18, she had reported only $4,150.
She is not the only candidate this election cycle to allege similar tactics by Ivey and his allies.
Cocoa police officer and District 2 County Commission contender Chris Hattaway said since FLORIDA TODAY reported that Ivey asked him to step aside for the sheriff's favored candidate, former State Rep. Tom Goodson, he has heard from at least three donors who said they received calls from Ivey or Goodson.
The donors — one elected official and two prominent local businessmen, Hattaway said — described the calls as attempts to undermine his account of the sheriff's offer or, in some cases, openly get them to reconsider their support before the Aug. 23rd primary, he said.
“He (Ivey) is going about it by calling my donors and supporters and saying, 'Chris made a mistake, but I am not going to say anything about it,'" Hattaway said, quoting what his supporters told him. He called the efforts "damage control" in the wake of the article, but said there is no doubt in his mind it was meant to have a chilling effect on support for his campaign.
Among the donors who were contacted, according to Hattaway, was Cocoa Mayor Michael Blake. Hattaway said that Blake called him a few weeks ago to tell him that he had been contacted by Goodson.
According to Hattaway, Blake said Goodson wanted to know why he, Blake, a Democrat, was supporting Hattaway, a Republican, and asked for a meeting to get him to "rethink that."
Blake told FLORIDA TODAY a meeting with Goodson did occur, in which they spoke about "concerns for the city of Cocoa," including housing needs and other issues, he said.
After initially telling a reporter Hattaway wasn't a subject of the conversation, Blake asked if he was being quoted and said he did tell Goodson he endorsed Hattaway in the race, but denied Goodson had asked him to change his support.
When asked about the call, Goodson responded: “No comment, no comment, no comment. Next question.”
According to Matthew Kachergus, a civil rights attorney in Jacksonville, if Goodson did call Blake to shift his support, it was most likely "fair game politics." "If he's just trying to change his mind, I don't really see a problem with that," Kachergus said.
The allegations involving Ivey, however, are a different matter, he said.
Kachergus said when a state actor tries directing people how to express their political rights, "just the nature of the request is going to have a chilling effect." That could cross the line into a First Amendment violation, or even an outright crime, depending on the context and specifics of the case — particularly if some form of retaliation is later involved, Kachergus added.
"Whenever a chief law enforcement officer in a jurisdiction is trying to dissuade people from exercising their First Amendment rights, it certainly smells problematic," he said.
'Right people into every office'
Ivey has stated that elected officials at all levels of government — from sheriff to school board to county and city offices — should share similar values and views. In practice, that has usually meant his own set of values.
"I think we may have to make sure that we're putting the right people into office. Into every office," Ivey said on an April 30, 2021, episode of the conservative podcast Liberty Monks. "We put focus and vigilance on some what we deem are the more important offices, maybe it's sheriff, maybe it's prosecutor. We often don't put that same thought process and diligence into our judicial elections, into our school board elections, into our municipal elections."
"And what we find is people that aren't standing up for the Constitution," he said. "We've got to get back to thinking across the board that every elected office is important."
Publicly, Ivey has framed his own judicial endorsements around his particular views of "law and order," imploring constituents to vote for judges that share what he has called his "no tolerance" attitude on crime.
"NOW MORE THAN EVER WE NEED TO MAKE SURE WE ARE ELECTING STRONG CONSERVATIVE JUDGES TO THE BENCH!!" Ivey wrote in a March 1 Facebook post. Judicial candidates should be willing to impose maximum sentences and "throw the key away" on people convicted of crimes, he said, and high bonds to keep those accused but not yet convicted in jail.
"If you want to know who to vote for in a Judges race that is going to protect your community...ask your Sheriff!!" he wrote.
Ivey's political maneuvering, while not a secret in Brevard, mystifies some experts.
In his 10 years at the helm of the nonpartisan research institute, Wilcox of Integrity Florida said, he couldn’t recall a case of a county sheriff exerting so much control over candidates — much less trading support for political favors.
It is legal in Florida for law enforcement leaders to endorse judges for office and engage in other political activities. Still, Wilcox said the extent of Ivey’s involvement in judicial races was “troubling,” leaving open the door to questions about the independence — and ultimately, the integrity — of the county courts.
"The sheriff is going to have to potentially arrest people that would then be prosecuted before that judge," Wilcox said. "It violates the spirit of the (Constitutional) separation of powers ... And I think it raises really troubling questions about use of political influence."
Incentivizing candidates to drop out of races is problematic precisely because it prioritizes the will of the powerful few over the will of the people, he said.
"He's depriving the public of the choices in elections," Wilcox said. "That's not fair to the voters. The voters are supposed to make those kinds of choices."
Musselman feels the same way.
In Brevard politics, “there is no level playing field from the start," she said. "There's no reason to have an election if one person gets to choose who runs, and what they run for and when they run."
Eric Rogers is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Rogers at 321-242-3717 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EricRogersFT.
Bobby Block is Managing Editor for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Block at 321-242-3710 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Brevard sheriff's election controversy has third candidate emerge