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FDLE probe into St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara a lesson for political wannabes

It’s always better when law enforcement officers are investigating potential crimes, as opposed to being investigated themselves.

Nevertheless, St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara was the target of an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement over allegations he recruited a “ghost candidate” to eliminate a rival in the 2020 election.

As TCPalm reported, prosecutors ultimately found insufficient evidence to charge Mascara or any of his alleged confederates with crimes related to the candidacy of Kevin Carter, a retired St. Lucie County deputy who defeated Richard Williams, a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper, in the Republican primary. Mascara, a Democrat, defeated Carter in the general election.

It defied logic for Mascara, sheriff for more than two decades, to resort to questionable activity to take out Williams, who the incumbent defeated comfortably four years earlier. However, in the heat of political battles, logic sometimes goes out the window.

How else to explain President Richard Nixon’s decision to order the Watergate burglary during a campaign he ended up winning handily?

The nonsense continues, from George Santos, who misled New York voters and is accused of other wrongdoing in connection with his 2022 election to the U.S. House of Representatives, to write-in “ghost candidates” on the Treasure Coast.

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In Florida, all voters may cast ballots in a primary when candidates have no opposition outside their parties. However, the entry of a write-in candidate closes a race to all voters except those of the same party as the main candidates. In many cases, two-thirds of voters, including independents, never even get the chance to vote in those races.

Learn more: Read the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s investigative summary in the Mascara case

Learn more: Read report explaining why the office of State Attorney Phil Archer did not file charges against Sheriff Ken Mascara

TCPalm Editorial: Florida’s write-in provision: It’s worse than you think

The most egregious examples this editorial board has cited in trying to persuade legislators to change this loophole were in 2016 when:

We can only imagine what FDLE probes into those shenanigans would have found, especially given disturbing information the agency reported after completing dozens of interviews and obtaining records in the Mascara case. The FDLE report summary included testimony claiming:

  • Mascara was active in recruiting Carter, who wasn’t interested in serving as sheriff and spent much of the campaign season in Pennsylvania.

  • Sheriff’s Capt. William Hardman, a Mascara ally, connected Carter with a campaign treasurer and worked to get campaign contributions. Hardman was a key figure in Carter’s campaign with Mascara’s approval and input.

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Communications between Mascara and Hardman were interesting to say the least, as reported by the FDLE:

  • An April 30, 2020, text message from Mascara told Hardman: “I’m going to beat him (presumably Williams) like a red headed step child but I just don’t want to go thru with it!!!”

  • In a May 16, 2020, text, apparently commenting on Carter’s suitability as a candidate, Mascara reportedly told Hardman: “Gez This guy is a Home run. He might beat ME”

  • The two discuss dumping a burner phone used for Carter’s campaign in the ocean

  • Also mentioned is an incident in which a volunteer coordinator for Carter reportedly got paid cash in a red Solo cup.

St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara

The investigative summary quotes a sheriff’s lieutenant on patrol as saying he saw Mascara and two men working near where a Carter campaign sign was planted later that night, suggesting the sheriff directly helped his sham opponent.

Mascara declined to give a statement to investigators and declined to speak with TCPalm. Adam Fetterman, former general counsel for the sheriff’s office, repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment during an interview, the FDLE reported.

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FDLE findings were sent to Phil Archer, state attorney for Brevard and Seminole counties, assigned to investigate via confidential executive orders from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Much of the case hinged on testimony from Hardman, granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation. Hardman retired from the Sheriff’s Office Dec. 31, 2020, during an inquiry related to “allegations of alleged sexual harassment,” TCPalm reported.

In a letter announcing its decision not to file criminal charges based on insufficient evidence, Archer’s office said some key people in Carter’s campaign might not have been aware of involvement by Mascara because they dealt directly with Hardman.

Mascara vowed 2020 was his last campaign. Still, this controversy should serve as a message to others in the political world:

Tamper with the electoral process, or do something that raises enough suspicion, and a state investigator might just be knocking on your door.

Whether there’s enough evidence uncovered to prove a criminal conviction, it’s still a fate best avoided.

Editorials published by TCPalm/Treasure Coast Newspapers are decided collectively by its editorial board. To respond to this editorial with a letter to the editor, email up to 300 words to [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Cautionary tale: Mascara avoids charges, but probe makes him look bad

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