Dave Aronberg ran anti-McAuliffe effort during work hours

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Dave Aronberg's secret campaign against then-State Attorney Michael McAuliffe was conducted in part on state time, during hours in which he was being paid to be the attorney general's pill mill czar, emails obtained by The Palm Beach Post show.

Aronberg sent at least a dozen emails directing attacks on McAuliffe during working hours, on days when state records show Aronberg took no time off. In one email, he crafted the text of an anti-McAuliffe attack ad. In another, he directed research into McAuliffe's past.

The exchanges appear to violate policies enforcing the state law that bans public employees from spending taxpayer time politicking.

Aronberg is now the front-runner for McAuliffe's old job. But most of the emails were sent before Aronberg declared his candidacy. If he had already been declared, they would likely have violated the state law as well. As it is, their legality is unclear.

The exchanges were among more than 100 written by Aronberg and provided to The Post by Gulf Stream millionaire Marty O'Boyle. They were sent to O'Boyle or his assistant, Denise DeMartini.

They detail a secret campaign, first reported by The Post on Sunday, which was directed by Aronberg and paid for by O'Boyle. It included hiring protesters, running attack ads against the sitting state attorney, and crafting requests for potentially damaging public records. O'Boyle assigned DeMartini to help.

At the time, McAuliffe was Aronberg's likely primary opponent, and Aronberg was the attorney general's $92,000-a-year special prosecutor for prescription drug trafficking — a West Palm Beach-based job that might have called for collaborating with local state attorneys, such as McAuliffe.

Sent a series of questions about Aronberg's behavior, the attorney general's office issued a blanket response.

"To the best of our knowledge, during his time in Attorney General (Pam) Bondi's administration, Mr. Aronberg abided by the laws and policies governing the conduct of employees," spokeswoman Jenn Meale wrote to The Post.

Asked whether it was appropriate for an attorney general's employee to coordinate a campaign with a political benefactor against a sitting state attorney, Bondi's office did not respond. Through Meale, Bondi refused repeated requests for an interview.

As a salaried employee, Aronberg didn't have to fill out a daily timecard. But he was required to list for each day the number of hours he worked or took as vacation, which had to add up to 80 hours every two weeks. The Post compared those records to time stamps on the emails. The paper considered as written on "state time" only emails sent between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., which the attorney general's office defines as "core work hours."

To do "political activities" during "normal work hours," attorney general's office employees are required to take vacation days or a leave of absence.

"As special prosecutor, I have always acted according to the letter and spirit of the laws of the state of Florida and the policies of the Office of the Attorney General," Aronberg wrote in a statement. He did not respond to specific questions about the hours.

In one email, sent at 2:48 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, Aronberg asked DeMartini to do legal research on McAuliffe's career as a federal prosecutor, and to request public records related to one potential line of attack, involving a rumor that McAuliffe overreacted when his mother-in-law briefly went missing.

In another, sent at 9:46 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 12, Aronberg selected and edited the text of a Facebook ad meant to place McAuliffe in a negative light. "I like the first one," he wrote, selecting from three options for potential ad text. He added: "Can you use the term ‘Watch the video' as the last 3 words of the teaser? Also, please replace ‘Palm Beach' with ‘West Palm Beach' or ‘West Palm.'"

The next day, at 1:01 p.m., Aronberg directed DeMartini to pay a $500 invoice for the ad, which ran with Aronberg's changes.

Each email was sent on a day during which Aronberg put in for at least eight hours of work and took no leave or vacation time. Seven of the emails were sent the week before Aronberg declared his candidacy.

The other five came earlier.

More emails would have qualified if messages sent between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. were included.

Aronberg also called DeMartini often to direct the anti-McAuliffe campaign. "Dave pretty much used me as his assistant," DeMartini told The Post. Those calls almost always came during the workday, she said.

Such calls are hinted at in the emails. "Just left you a message," Aronberg wrote to O'Boyle at 2:56 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011, in response to an O'Boyle email asking whether he should pay to fly planes trailing banners

at a McAuliffe fundraiser. Aronberg filed for 7.5 hours that day and took no vacation time.

In other cases, Aronberg didn't take vacation, but simply worked fewer hours, then made it up at other points later in the pay cycle. For example, he flew with O'Boyle to Tallahassee on O'Boyle's private plane Oct. 3, then spent most of Oct. 4 with O'Boyle in political meetings about his potential campaign. But he filed for only four hours of work on Oct. 3, and only one hour Oct. 4, without taking vacation either day.

State law says: "An employee of the state or any political subdivision may not participate in any political campaign for an elective office while on duty." Violating that statute is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. But proving a violation hinges on when a political campaign starts, legal experts say.

Because state law doesn't define "political campaign" and Aronberg had not launched a formal campaign during most of his work with O'Boyle, it's unclear whether the statute applied.

The attorney general's office policy is more precise: "An employee who wishes to participate in political activities during normal work hours must request to use his or her personal leave or request a leave of absence," the policy states. It defines "political activity" broadly — from a campaign for statewide office to running for a position within a fraternal organization.

After he launched his campaign, Aronberg appeared to follow the policy more carefully, taking vacation hours routinely. By then, McAuliffe had dropped out of the race. Two additional emails, sent on work time on days when Aronberg did not take leave, concerned a records request targeting emails between McAuliffe and writers at The Post.