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New records show Sheriff Keith Pearson's controversial appointment wasn't as sudden as it seemed

Emails requested from governor's office in December not fulfilled until May
St. Lucie County Sheriff Keith Pearson. Dec. 4, 2023.png
Posted at 10:30 PM, Jun 05, 2024

ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. — I have been working for months to learn how and why Keith Pearson was appointed sheriff of St. Lucie County in December 2023 after former Sheriff Ken Mascara abruptly retired.

Law enforcement officers, the state attorney and the county's Republican party leaders have criticized the selection, prompting me to challenge the governor's office for an explanation.

In a letter sent to employees at the sheriff's office, Mascara said he was stepping down for health reasons.

St. Lucie County Sheriff Keith Pearson. Dec. 4, 2023.png

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But emails I recently obtained through a public records request to the governor's office show that Mascara's retirement and Pearson's appointment may not have been as abrupt as Pearson made it seem.

I requested emails from the governor’s office in December. The request was fulfilled in May.

In the emails released to me, I found a clearer timeline for when the governor's office and the staff who handle appointments started vetting Pearson. I also found the reaction from dozens of people who live in St. Lucie County who wrote the office expressing their disappointment in the appointment.

Pearson's appointment was formally announced in a news release from the governor's office on Dec. 1, 2023.

Several days later on Dec. 4, Pearson gave me my first interview since he became sheriff.

St. Lucie County Sheriff Keith Pearson. Dec. 4, 2023.jpg

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I asked Pearson, "Did you see this coming?"

He answered that he was surprised and humbled by the decision.

"I was driving down Midway Road about 30 minutes before the governor's press release came out. The phone rang. I thought it was a number I didn't recognize. I thought it would be about my extended car warranty, but it was the governor's office and they said congratulations you've been appointed to sheriff of St. Lucie County," Pearson said.

I also asked Pearson if Mascara told him that he was planning to retire early, to which Pearson told me, "No, he didn't."

Since that Dec. 4 interview, I've been trying to understand how Pearson's name rose to the top of the stack to be selected as the appointed sheriff. He was a lieutenant at the time who was, for a still unknown reason, selected over higher-ranking majors or captains.

In that interview, Pearson also told me, "Transparency is going to be our No. 1 goal we're working towards."

St. Lucie County Sheriff Keith Pearson. Dec. 4, 2023.png

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But despite that statement, getting more answers from him or the governor's office has been challenging. That's why we've been making numerous public records requests.

In the documents I just reviewed, I found the ball was rolling to vet Pearson for the appointment by at least Nov. 21, 2023. Alex Kelly, the secretary of the state's Department of Commerce who was also the governor's acting chief of staff emailed a file containing Pearson's training, education, awards and recognitions.

On Nov. 27, FDLE confirmed a background check had been completed on Pearson at the request of the governor's office.

On Nov. 29, communications staff in the governor's office was already drafting the announcement for Keith Pearson's appointment, which was later released to the media on Dec. 1.

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I tried to ask Pearson if he knew the governor's office was reviewing his personnel records and running a background check more than a week before he was appointed.

On Wednesday, I called and texted the sheriff's office's public information officer, and went to the sheriff's office to see if Pearson was available for comment. The public information officer did not respond to my calls or texts. An employee in the lobby at the sheriff's office said neither Pearson nor the spokesperson were in the building or available for an interview.

The documents released to me from the governor's office also showed 34 letters from people who live in St. Lucie County, former law enforcement officers and more than a dozen people who are members of the St. Lucie County Republican Executive Committee that were sent within the first week of Pearson's appointment.

Every letter expressed concern about Pearson's appointment, calling the decision an 'ill-advised appointment," a "mistake," or that "a more qualified candidate should have been vetted," for example.

Numerous letters also say they did not support the appointment because of an FDLE investigation that questioned Pearson and Mascara for an alleged role in propping up a ghost candidate in the 2020 election to help Mascara get reelected. FDLE recommended criminal charges, but a state attorney in a different judicial circuit declined to file charges.

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One of the people who wrote a letter was Mike Monahan, a former long-time deputy for the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office.

"There are certainly other people in the county that were way more qualified to be a 'caretaker' until there was an election," Monahan said. "I just feel Keith has no business in this position."

I contacted at least a dozen letter writers who told me they never received a response from the governor's office about their concerns.

However, we know the concerns were received. An email from staff members in the governor's office shows they shared links to news articles about the appointment. A staff member wrote that "plenty of letters of concern" were coming into the governor's office.

I also contacted FDLE and the governor's office again Wednesday, including the office that handles appointments, to ask again if they'd detail how Pearson was selected to be appointed and when that process began.

I have still not heard back.