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Florida ethics panel finds probable cause against ex-St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara

Panel says former sheriff misused position to meddle in election
Posted at 11:01 PM, Jun 12, 2024

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Commission on Ethics said it found enough probable cause to hold a formal public hearing to determine if former St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara misused his public position for personal benefit to win the 2020 sheriff election.

According to records WPTV obtained from the Commission on Ethics, the board was sent a referral from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) in September 2023 of possible violations of the state's code of ethics for public officers and employees.

The board met on Oct. 20, 2023, and voted to investigate the referral for a probable cause determination on whether Mascara violated state ethics laws.

The commission voted this month that there was enough probable cause to set a future public hearing. If it determines a violation occurred, the commission could recommend penalties.

Mascara had been the sheriff of St. Lucie County since 2001 before abruptly resigning his post on Dec. 1, citing health issues. According to the documents, the ethics review appears to have started last summer before he resigned.

Controversy Surrounds 'Ghost Campaign'

In 2020, Mascara was running for reelection as a Democrat against Republican candidate Kevin Carter.

However, Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigators said Carter wasn't actually trying to beat Mascara. Instead, they allege Carter was hand-picked by Mascara or some of his subordinates to run as a Republican to beat out a legitimate Republican candidate, Rich Williams.

Williams spoke to WPTV anchor Meghan McRoberts in late 2023 when the investigation came to light.

"Me and my team knew right away that it was a straw candidate," Williams said.

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The FDLE said the plan was for Carter to win the primary and then concede the general election to Mascara.

FDLE recommended criminal charges but the 18th Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office declined to file them, saying the allegations "could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt." The FDLE then took their findings to the state's ethics commission.

'Abused his public position'

Documents that WPTV obtained from the ethics commission show it reviewed FDLE's investigative summary, leading the commission to find enough probable cause that Mascara "abused his public position" by "orchestrating a straw campaign" and "directing subordinates to manage the straw campaign" and "falsify campaign records."

The commission determined the following allegations from FDLE were "legally sufficient" for its own investigation:

  • Mascara, a Democrat, orchestrated a "straw campaign" where he allegedly recruited [Kevin Carter] to defeat his opponent in the 2020 Republican primary and concede the race to Mascara
  • General Counsel for the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office, Adam Fetterman, allegedly advised Mascara against recruiting a straw candidate
  • Mascara allegedly used his position as Sheriff by asking subordinates to be straw candidates, and after one was found, directed several subordinates to manage the straw campaign
  • Mascara allegedly provided a "burner phone" to a subordinate for him to use in managing the campaign, and later instructed him to drop the "burner phone" in the ocean or a river
  • Mascara allegedly used his position as sheriff by providing $10,000 to one subordinate by leaving the money in his desk drawer at the sheriff's office and instructing the subordinate to find straw donors to distribute the money so they could donate it to the "straw campaign" by directing subordinates to a straw campaign website and by directing a subordinate to falsify campaign finance records to conceal the true use of straw campaign funds

No investigation into the allegations was launched until after Mascara was reelected.
McRoberts spoke to Williams' 2020 campaign manager Jordan Kahle on Thursday after learning the ethics committee is now involved.

"That's validation, Meghan, but let's see action," Kahle said. "I'm not holding my breath. Nobody cared in 2020. Why care now? The guy is gone."

Rich Williams' 2020 campaign manager Jordan Kahle speaks about the findings of the ethics panel into Ken Mascara.
Rich Williams' 2020 campaign manager Jordan Kahle speaks about the findings of the ethics panel into Ken Mascara.

Mascara, through attorney RW Evans, responded to the commission's review of the investigation, challenging the credibility of the investigation and its witnesses, writing "the State Attorney found the evidence presented to be woefully insufficient.. and the principal witness lacking credibility."

Evans also wrote the report "relies upon a flawed FDLE investigation."

In a letter, Evans also specified contradictions about the alleged "burner phone." "Significantly, when FDLE reviewed the phone there was no evidence linked to Mascara."

What's Next?

Lynn Blais with the Commission on Ethics said these are the next steps in the case:

"Now that probable cause has been found, Mr. Mascara has the right to a full evidentiary hearing or could choose to try to reach a settlement agreement with the Commission Advocate. Either way, the matter will come back to the Commission at a future meeting for final action as to whether or not a violation of law has occurred and if so, what penalty is appropriate to recommend.

The most common penalties for violation of a violation of the Sunshine Amendment and the Code of Ethics laws may include public censure and reprimand, and/or a civil penalty not to exceed $10,000 (Conduct occurring after May 11, 2023, will be subject to a recommended civil penalty of up to $20,000. [Ch. 2023‐49, Laws of Florida.]). All available options would also include impeachment, removal from office or employment, suspension, public censure, reprimand, demotion, reduction in salary level, forfeiture of no more than one‐third salary per month for no more than twelve months, restitution of any pecuniary benefits received, and triple the value of a gift from a political committee."