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Making MEMORIES

Clay County political dynasty counts on forgetful voters

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Will Rogers said, “The short memories of the American voters are what keeps our politicians in office.” Some politicians continue to proffer reminders why they should not hold public office. Recently, former Clay County Sheriff Scott Lancaster tweaked the voters’ collective memories.

Lancaster was Clay County Sheriff from 1992 to 2004. Four months ago, newly elected State Attorney Melissa Nelson hired him as an investigator. On May 8, upon receiving a sexual harassment complaint against the former sheriff, Nelson ordered an investigation. On May 30, she fired him. The next day, Lancaster submitted a letter of resignation, denying the charges.

This was not Lancaster’s first foray into questionable behavior.

In 2004, Lancaster made his fourth bid for sheriff. His opponents were Rick Beseler and Steven Richardson. Beseler was chief investigator for then-State Attorney Harry Shorstein. Beseler said Shorstein asked him not to run against his friend, Lancaster, but Beseler chose to run anyway and retired from the office. Richardson was a former police officer.

In Florida, the use of public funds by a public official, either temporarily or permanently, is a felony. In 2003, Folio Weekly discovered that Sheriff Lancaster had been using public funds for private fun. Credit cards receipts showed Clay’s top-cop had been racking up large bills for at least 10 years. He purchased everything from gas and goodies on vacation, to underwear, alcohol and lavish spa and ski vacations for himself and his then-girlfriend, the wife of a prominent attorney. (Lancaster was also married at the time.)

Folio Weekly ran the story of his abuse of public monies (“Booty Call,” by Susan Clark Armstrong, Jan. 13, 2004). The sheriff quickly called a press conference, during which he couldn’t seem to commit to an excuse for his financial improprieties. He claimed the story was completely false and flourished sheaves of check-sized papers, saying they were cancelled checks showing he repaid all monies. It turned out that the papers were not cancelled checks and he had not repaid the county. Not that it mattered; even if he had repaid the money, state law still labels his actions a felony.

Next, Lancaster blamed his secretary, saying she failed to decipher private expenditures from public ones. When that didn’t work, he settled on the story that he would commit to for the duration of his predicament: He had “accidentally” used the county’s credit card because he thought it was his personal credit card. For 10 years.

Eventually, upon expressions of outrage by citizens and the watchdog group Citizens for Term Limits and Accountability Committee (CTLAC), the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigated Sheriff Scott Lancaster. Clay County kept credit card records for 10 years, and the FDLE found evidence Lancaster had used his county credit card for private expenditures as far back as records existed. The sitting sheriff was then brought before the grand jury.

Shorstein was to be the prosecuting attorney. Lancaster had worked on Shorstein’s campaigns and the two were known to be close friends and confidantes. Once again, CTLAC led a coup, insisting Shorstein recuse himself. Shorstein initially refused, but ultimately complied. Chosen to lead the grand jury was Columbia County State Attorney Jerry Blair, also a friend of Lancaster’s. Blair had worked with Lancaster on several cases.

Despite state law qualifying Lancaster’s spending habits as a felony, Blair’s grand jury found the sheriff had no criminal intent. However, although the grand jury gave Lancaster a legal reprieve, its members wrote a blistering presentment casting doubts that he could have mistaken a county credit card for a personal one for 10 years, and calling him an embarrassment to the county.

After the Grand Jury Presentment, Lancaster kicked his campaign into high gear, making continuous personal appearances, including in numerous churches, touting his “exoneration.” His campaign coffers were twice as large as those of his two opponents, and he spent big.

One of Lancaster’s campaign workers told Folio Weekly that internal polls showed he would win by a small margin over Beseler, with Richardson a distant third. Anticipating the win, the sheriff planned a large “victory” soirée at his “compound” in Green Cove Springs, inviting most of the local media. Except Folio Weekly.

Lancaster was in for an unpleasant surprise. His polls were wrong. He was significantly behind. Reporters said his surprise was evident as results came in. He had the compound vacated of supporters and media, kicked the side of his sheriff’s office vehicle, locked the gates and refused to let anyone in or give any interviews. Beseler trounced Lancaster 52 percent to 34 percent, with Richardson receiving 13.7 percent of the vote.

Fast-forward to present day. Shorstein, an outspoken critic of former State Attorney Angela Corey, was a major contributor and mentor to Melissa Nelson. When Nelson won, she appointed Shorstein’s close friend, 63-year-old Scott Lancaster, as a top investigator. The appointment was rumored to be political payback for Shorstein’s help.

On May 8, a coworker filed a sexual harassment complaint against Lancaster. The woman who filed the complaint wrote in a memo that Lancaster had greeted her on several occasions with “something to the effect of ‘good morning, gorgeous’ or ‘good morning, beautiful.’” She said, after a meeting in her office, Lancaster asked others to leave, saying he had something to discuss with her. She said there was no discussion. The complainant said Lancaster had also called her and asked if she was “covered up.” The woman felt he was asking if she was clothed. On another occasion, she said he phoned her and asked her to meet him because “he heard how nice she looked today, and he wanted to see for himself.”

During the investigation into the allegations, one woman said Lancaster had a “tendency to invade personal space.” A female security guard said Lancaster asked if he could kiss her.

Dan Skinner, special assault director for the State Attorney’s Office, shared confidential details about the complaint with Lancaster. Skinner had been the chief assistant state attorney in Clay County, during which time he had worked closely with Lancaster for a number of years. First Assistant State Attorney Steve Siegel, in an apparent attempt to de-escalate the situation and possibly manage the fallout, told Lancaster that if he resigned, the investigation would end. Lancaster refused. On May 30, Nelson fired him.

As of this writing, Scott Lancaster is the last in the line of his family’s political dynasty in Clay County. His brother, Larry Lancaster, a longtime Clay County Commissioner, chose not to count on the short memory of the voters. Folio Weekly had discovered that Commissioner Lancaster did not live in the district to which he was elected and had not lived there for some time. The same day the grand jury released its presentment about his brother, Larry Lancaster announced he would not run for another term as County Commissioner, citing his desire to spend more time with his grandchildren.

Scott Lancaster’s father, Lanny Lancaster, was also a County Commissioner in 1957. In 1975, he was elected as Clay County Supervisor of Elections. He held the office until 1985, when a woman in his office accused him of long-term sexual harassment. After an investigation and a hearing were held regarding the charges, Lanny Lancaster voluntarily left public office and the woman received a large settlement from the county.

State Attorney Nelson reminded voters that Scott Lancaster has not been a good steward of the public trust. His long history of shady and shameful behavior didn’t start with the sexual harassment of a coworker, nor did it start with abuse of the county’s coffers. Now, at least, there is hope that taxpayers won’t finance any more unacceptable and unlawful actions he may decide to undertake in the future.

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