Gov. Jeb Bush owed Sandy Goard a favor. Goard was the Republican Seminole County supervisor of elections who, before the 2000 presidential election, allowed GOP operatives to alter absentee-ballot request forms that were originally rejected because they lacked necessary information. Had that not happened or had the Florida Supreme Court tossed those absentee ballots as Democratic lawyers asked Jeb's brother would not be president.
So when Goard announced her resignation on Nov. 6, 2003, and recommended that her assistant of six years, Dennis Joyner, be appointed to fill out the rest of her term, it was a no-brainer. Joyner took over in January.
For the new supervisor, the timing couldn't have been better. Not only would he bank a $106,828 salary, but he'd get a year to campaign as an incumbent to keep the job, a natural advantage.
Joyner, according to one of his Republican primary opponents, Michael Ertel, quickly went to work. "Get out the vote" refrigerator magnets bearing Goard's name were tossed and replaced with magnets featuring Joyner's name. The same with the glossy pamphlets printed with Goard's name. Also, Joyner announced his arrival in a full-color newsletter called "The Election Scene" that bore his picture and a headline, "A 'New' Message from Supervisor of Elections Dennis Joyner."
Which, to Ertel, suggests Joyner is using taxpayer dollars to boost his own name recognition. On June 23, Ertel wrote Joyner a lengthy e-mail asking him how much public money was spent on full-color brochures and magnets. He also wanted to know more about "your office's intention to provide every single voter in Seminole County with a new voter information card." (The cards haven't been sent out, but Joyner did mention in the newsletter that updated cards and sample ballots would be sent out this summer.)
"It is obvious to even the most ardent defender of your office that this is a flagrant misuse of public funds to benefit the campaign of an appointed incumbent looking to build his name identification," Ertel wrote to Joyner.
For Joyner, this is a nonissue, and Ertel is a nuisance. "I've not done anything to promote myself," he says, adding that Ertel is the only one complaining.
The newsletter, Joyner says, has a small distribution. Only about 3,000 are printed, and most are given to poll workers. As for the voter identification cards, Joyner says that the statute requires that the new supervisor's name be on the registration card. Indeed, Florida statutes say voter registration cards must include, among a laundry list of other items, the supervisor's name.
But Ertel says Joyner's indiscretions go beyond literature and magnets. He says Joyner also leaned on poll workers to sign his candidate petitions during taxpayer-funded poll worker training sessions, and added state-mandated disclaimers to the petitions only after they had been signed. Moreoever, Ertel says that when he tried to inspect the petitions to confirm his theory, Joyner illegally denied him access to public records.
Joyner, in an e-mail to Ertel, accused the challenger of being rude and using foul language, and telling him that because he sought so many records, he'd have to give the office "reasonable notice so that we could assign staff to supervise and facilitate your request." Joyner, meanwhile, denies that he improperly gathered or altered petitions.
Joyner's office responded to Ertel's other request for information by inviting him to review the office's budget, which he did. Unfortunately, the "expenditure transaction analysis" he saw, and later shared with Orlando Weekly, doesn't specify how much money was spent on specific pamphlets or brochures.
According to line items in the expenditure report, since Joyner took over the office has spent $2,520 to print three "existing" brochures, $395 to print the new logo and run up a slew of other printing charges though it's impossible to tell which printing costs are normal and which are associated with Joyner tagging his name to existing brochures and pamphlets.
Even if Ertel is dead-on about Joyner using his office's print budget to boost his election chances, there's nothing illegal or unethical about it, according to state law. Florida statutes broadly prohibit public officials from using their office or authority to promote a political career, but nothing in the law addresses this situation.
Asked about Ertel's allegations, Florida Commission on Ethics executive director Bonnie Williams responds sarcastically, "Gee, that's sooooo uncommon. There's nothing in the law against that."
Because Joyner's pamphlets arguably serve a public good informing voters that there is a new supervisor of elections he is in the clear, even if he has ulterior motives, Williams says.
To break the law, ethics commission chairman Richard Spears says, "What you have to do is put out campaign literature at government expense. If it's not campaign literature, it's not a problem."
Indeed, Joyner's brochures and pamphlets aren't as overt as those put out by Orange County clerk of courts Lydia Gardner. In April, Gardner mailed out an 18-page brochure to 2,900 members of the Orange County Bar Association detailing her office's accomplishments in 2003. The brochure noted that Gardner's office had a 95 percent "satisfactory" rating, based on customer surveys. She is in the middle of a re-election campaign against Orange County commissioner Mary Johnson. Gardner told the Orlando Sentinel the mailings, which cost $8,485, had nothing to do with her campaign.
Ertel faces Joyner and fellow Republican Charles Gambaro in the Aug. 31 primary. Because Republicans control all the countywide offices in Seminole County, whoever wins the primary has a good shot at winning the election. Ertel can only hope that his allegations of fiscal misconduct resonate with the county's ultraconservative voters. Joyner, on the other hand, hopes voters see things as he does.