from the editor

Chase That Money

Dog-racing interests bet on sheriff’s race in St. Johns County

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In an age of political polarization, an era of chronic 50-50 stalemate, it was refreshing to see Floridians of all political stripes come together last November to vote “yes” on Amendment 13, thus setting a timetable for the phase-out of greyhound racing across the state. You don’t see too many 69-percent mandates these days, folks. But there it was. Florida clearly wants to put the anachronistic industry behind it. And, come Jan. 1, 2021, greyhound racing will indeed be a thing of the past in the Sunshine State.

Having failed at the ballot box, however, industry interests are attempting to thwart the will of the people in court. Implementation of Amendment 13 has been challenged legally in recent months by kennel owners in St. Petersburg and West Palm Beach. Yes, their chances of success are slim, but these maneuverings indicate that a handful of Florida’s dog tracks refuse to recognize the plebiscite, or “the mob” (in the words of one legal filing).

Although it is not a named party to these actions, one of Florida’s last operating dog tracks is right here in Northeast Florida. Not only has BestBet Orange Park refused to voluntarily halt racing—presumably until the bitter end—but it has been implicated in drug violations as recently as this year. In May, First Coast News reported that BestBet greyhounds have tested positive for cocaine and methocarbamol.

And, as of last month, Northeast Florida’s dog-racing industry is placing a $5,000 wager on one candidate for St. Johns County Sheriff. St. Augustine Beach Police Chief Rob Hardwick had long been rumored to have designs on the office being vacated by the county’s scandal-ridden sitting sheriff, David Shoar, but he didn’t formally announce his candidacy until last month. He has since outraised his competitor, Chris Strickland, who has been in the race since January. Among Hardwick’s 265 reported September contributions (totaling $186,124) are five $1,000 checks made by just as many BestBet-related businesses, all registered to one of two P.O. boxes in Orange Park (Clay County) and Jacksonville (Duval County).

The disclosure has prompted letters to this editor, one calling on the candidate to return such “dirty money” from “dog abusers.” Another reader questioned Hardwick’s relationship with Shoar. Hardwick is the heir apparent to the outgoing four-term sheriff’s throne; he even has Shoar’s seal of approval—and his maximum campaign contribution. The endorsement might help among establishment donors, but voters not so much. The sheriff is an unpopular figure in St. Johns County, seen by some as a caricature of good-ol’-boy corruption.

The citizens of St. Johns County haven’t forgotten Sheriff Shoar’s controversial handling of one case in particular. Michelle O’Connell will continue to haunt the sheriff and anyone associated with him. Although clearly suspicious, her 2010 death was peremptorily ruled a suicide to protect O’Connell’s boyfriend (and the most obvious suspect), Deputy Jeremy Banks, who is still on the force. The body count doubled in January of this year, when a private investigator who had dedicated their life to solving the O’Connell case was found dead in a World Golf Village apartment. This time, it was ruled homicide. The investigation was referred to the neighboring (and presumably friendly) Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, but it remains (surprise!) unsolved.

Will Hardwick address voter concerns, or will the establishment imprimatur—Shoar’s blessing and big-money donors—give him enough juice to get over the finish line without looking back?

@thatgeorgioguy

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