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Clay School District Employee Accused of 'Harassment,' 'Intimidation'

Women claim Michael Kerekes targeted them because he believed they supported Charlie Van Zant

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A Clay County School District employee has taken a leave of absence amid allegations that he harassed several women—and now there are rumors of a political cover-up. But few who know about it will speak publicly.

Three women have alleged that Michael Kerekes, coordinator of community and strategic partnerships at the Clay County School District, has “intimidated,” “cornered,” “harassed” and “bullied” them, also saying they feel the sheriff’s office under former Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler has covered it up. Kerekes is currently on a leave of absence from the school district. Beseler has since moved away from the area; in spite of repeated efforts, FW was unable to obtain contact information for him.

In 2016, Clay County School Board Public Relations Director Rebecca Van Gyseghem reported Kerekes to police for attempting to interfere with her recording a press conference at the school, which is one of the duties of that position. In the police report, she stated that Kerekes put “his hand in front of my camera and moving my camera, asking me again (closer to me) ‘why I was here!’ Janice [Kerekes] walked up and said, ‘I’m sorry you’re in the middle, but you have Charlie Van Zant to blame.’” Janice Kerekes is Michael’s mother and a member of the Clay County School Board. Neither of the Kerekes responded to numerous requests for comment. Disclosure: this reporter was listed as the point of contact for a press release for Latanya Peterson in June 2017, while working as a contract employee with political consulting firm Groundswell Strategies. Peterson is running against Janice Kerekes for Clay County School Board.

Van Gyseghem continued that “he [Kerekes] thought this thru” and he “made her uncomfortable” on purpose. She told police that the altercation was so upsetting that other employees later found her crying, balled up in a corner. She said she felt he acted purposely, knowing no one would see him because she was in the back of the room and everyone else was looking forward. She claims that she believes she was targeted because Kerekes thought she was partial to the candidacy of former school Superintendent Charlie Van Zant.

The police report states that a witness to the alleged incident told them he spoke to Van Gyseghem afterward. “She was shaking and had been crying,” he said, “I asked what had happened and she pointed to Michael and told me he was harassing her and would not stop.” According to the report, Janice Kerekes, a potential witness, did not respond to attempts by the police to contact her for a statement. It also states that Michael Kerekes did not provide a statement. Police sent the case to the State Attorney’s Office, but charges were never filed. Van Gyseghem subsequently sought a restraining order, which was denied.

During the investigation, an executive of the Clay County School District said that Clay County Sheriff’s deputy Ricky Wright came to District offices to pick up a sworn statement by Toni McCabe, who was then the assistant superintendent of human resources for the school district. She reportedly told police that Michael Kerekes confronted her late one night in 2014 when she was walking to her car after a school board meeting. She alleged Kerekes called her “one evil f****** bitch” because she was friends with Charlie Van Zant. In McCabe’s statement, she says that a witness offered to provide a signed statement to the school confirming the incident. The document, along with the witness’ statement, was reportedly provided to Wright, now the Clay County Sheriff’s Office Director of Detention, as evidence.

A third woman, who spoke to Folio Weekly on condition of anonymity, claims she also was harassed by Kerekes based on his belief that she supported Van Zant. She said that she reported this to then-Sheriff Beseler, who advised her to file a restraining order. The restraining order was denied.

The police report about Van Gyseghem’s allegations against Kerekes does not indicate that McCabe’s statement was provided to police, nor does it include information about the other alleged victim’s meeting with Beseler. The Clay County Sheriff’s Office now claims that it has no record of McCabe’s statement. Wright did not offer further comment, and law enforcement staff incorrectly said that “statements aren’t evidence.” Attorney David D. Naples Jr. said, “Generally speaking, written statements given to the sheriff’s office as evidence in a case are still technically evidence. However, as far as evidence in a criminal or civil case, even if you have written statements, you still need to produce evidence in the form of testimony from those persons giving the written statements.”

Naples also said that the investigation could be politically motivated. Records show that Janet Kerekes and then-Undersheriff Craig Aldrich served together on the Clay County Habitat for Humanity board for several terms around the time of the incident and that they have donated to each other’s political campaigns in recent years.

The report on Van Gyseghem’s accusations concludes that “the investigation revealed this incident to be accidental. While reviewing the school board’s recorded video at Fleming Island High School, there is no evidence of the school board meeting being disturbed.”

Clay County School District Superintendent Addison Davis did not respond to requests for comment. According to County Supervisor of Election records, during her 2016 campaign, Davis paid Kerekes for vendor services, such as “campaign labor” and “reimburse[ment]
for supplies.”

As of June 25, Michael Kerekes is on leave from the school board. In a memo to Davis, Kerekes indicated he was taking a leave of absence for personal and family reasons. A school board employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told FW that Davis asked Kerekes to take the leave because he is a political consultant for several campaigns, and because of recent, unspecified controversies. Both Davis and a Clay County School District spokesperson declined comment.

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Clarification: This article has been updated to disclose  that the reporter worked for political consulting firm Groundwell  Strategies. Nicole Carroll, née Sanders, was a contractor with the firm April-June 2017.

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