BONITA SPRINGS — The Florida Elections Commission has opened an investigation into a pair of e-mails sent by Bonita Springs fire board candidate Robert Sharkey, both of which contained false information about his opponent, incumbent commissioner Ed FitzGerald.
In a letter dated Oct. 4, Commission executive director Rosanna Catalano wrote to Sharkey that investigators will determine if the candidate “maliciously made or caused to be made a false statement about his opponent ...,” a violation of election law punishable by a $5,000 fine.
The letter came after Catalano determined that a complaint against Sharkey, made by FitzGerald, “contains one or more legally sufficient allegations.”
The investigation shouldn’t affect Sharkey’s candidacy. Any outcome will arrive well after Election Day.
Reached on Thursday, the candidate declined comment.
“I have no response at this time,” he said. “I’ll consult my attorney and get back to you at another time.”
The e-mails, sent to a group of Sharkey supporters in August, made two accusations against FitzGerald and district officials. One was that the district reimbursed him $11,000 for the costs of attending a three-week class at Harvard University. The other was that FitzGerald, the board chairman, and district administration used taxpayer money to travel to Paris.
Both claims were false. FitzGerald requested reimbursement for the class but was turned down. And neither he nor any Bonita Fire official traveled to France for a conference.
A lawyer representing Bonita Springs Fire sent a letter to Sharkey demanding a public retraction for the e-mails. Sharkey later apologized for the messages, calling them “erroneous” in a written statement.
He explained in the statement that he received the information from what he thought was a reliable source and had never intended for it to be spread outside a “small and internal group of current and prospective supporters.”
Fellow candidate Alex Grantt, who is also challenging a seated commissioner, acknowledged that he forwarded some of the false information to Sharkey, believing it to be true at the time. Grantt recalled the France conference being mentioned at the end of a meeting, and he said he believed that the chief, assistant chief and FitzGerald all claimed they were attending.
“My big mistake was not getting the videotape after that meeting,” Grantt said. “Silly me. Because I’m going only from memory.”
Included in FitzGerald’s complaint was a notarized statement from Commissioner Wayne Edsall, who says Sharkey called him about both allegations before sending the e-mails. Edsall says he expressed doubts about their veracity and warned Sharkey to double-check the information.
FitzGerald, reached on Thursday, said he hoped the investigation would erode voter confidence in his opponent and that it would result in action by the Election Commission.
“The law is clear — malicious lying in a campaign is a violation of Florida election law. I believe he did this knowingly ... and now he must face the consequences.”
Any action by the panel will come well after Election Day. Sharkey has 20 days from his receipt of the letter to respond to the allegation, a statement that will then be added to the investigative report. Upon conclusion of the inquiry, Sharkey will be sent a report of the investigation, followed by a staff recommendation for any punishment if probable cause is found.
Sharkey can respond to the report within 14 days, and he’ll have another 14 days to respond to the recommendation.
The Commission will then hold a hearing on the matter, during which Sharkey is permitted to give an oral statement. He cannot testify or introduce evidence. FitzGerald may also be allowed to make a statement.
Sharkey can choose to negotiate with the Election Commission before probable cause is found. The negotiations would take the form of a settlement via consent agreement.
Three Bonita fire commission seats are being contested in the Nov. 2 election. Grantt seeks a seat held by Evans Conforti, and Pat McCourt seeks a seat held by Frank Liles.