The political capital required to achieve office often happens by hand-shake agreements in back rooms. It is all part of the illusion. While looking at the smile – your pocket is picked. Eye contact is never lost. Many of these ringmasters are wealthy, white and successful. A few are quiet and get by without bringing attention to themselves. However, most crave the spotlight.
Folio’s “The Circus,” detailed corruption and greed in Jacksonville politics. Whether it’s born from narcissism or nepotism, politicians are either the ringmasters or, at times, the clowns. It depends on the person, but both positions require a crew of on-lookers and hangers on around them to get into office and, more importantly, to stay there.
This week, Folio will shine the spotlight on Mike Williams and the void left by his sudden, and possibly purposeful, resignation from the Office of the Sheriff of Jacksonville.
We start with a particularly interesting character named Kent Stermon. Professionally, Stermon is the chief operating officer of Total Military Management, a company he leads alongside Matt Connell, that provides third-party services to the Department of Defense (DoD) household goods relocation industry. In other words, they help our military families relocate when they are reassigned. According to the reviews from the Better Business Bureau’s website, TMM needs to do a better job. One reviewer described TMM as “a shell for other moving companies.” TMM “maintain no licenses and use an immoral if not illegal sub-contracting system.” The review revealed TMM’s approach to hiring the lowest bidders, while obtaining and keeping the difference. Service men and women reported broken or missing furniture. Another reviewer felt it was, “WORST MOVE OF OUR ENTIRE LIVES!”
Privately, Stermon is a friend to the powerful. Stermon’s name has largely been whispered and kept out of the press, despite his posting photos of himself with the who’s who of the local GOP. The only real mention of Stermon was from a time when he and Connell rented a condo to then Congressman Ron DeSantis. This prompted an ethics complaint. However, the complaint was never resolved as it did not make it the level of an investigation before DeSantis resigned from Congress to run for the Governor of Florida.
Ron DeSantis. Stermon served as DeSantis’ Northeast Florida campaign chair and after the election was appointed to one of DeSantis’ policy advisory committees during the transition. Once elected, DeSantis appointed Stermon to the Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s public universities.
The special treatment doesn’t stop there. The Governor’s wife, Casey DeSantis, also entered this quagmire when she flew from Tallahassee to Jacksonville on a corporate jet controlled by Mori Hosseini, another Republican donor, so that she could attend a fundraiser at Stermon’s Total Military Management. When asked to comment, Stermon told Politico, “It is always good to see my good friend, first lady Casey DeSantis for lunch. I held a successful fundraiser for the Republican party of Florida. I appreciate the First Lady’s continued friendship and support of the party.”
Some insiders say, Stermon put Jacksonville’s former Sheriff Mike Williams and Ron DeSantis together. As with DeSantis’ campaign, Stermon also chaired Mike Williams political committee. A.G. Gancarski, a writer for Florida Politics, reported that as “finance director for Williams’ 2015 campaign… (Stermon) raised $541,000. Stermon also led the reelection effort and his Political Action Committee, “A Safe Jacksonville.”
How does someone repay that kind of loyalty? On February 18, 2016, Williams tweeted, “Happy to recognize Kent Stermon as the 2015 Citizen of the year! #communitypartner.”
Wealthy people love awards. You can’t buy them- well, not directly.
From a Mover to a Move
On June 10, 2022, Sheriff Mike Williams “officially” resigned as Sheriff of Jacksonville. His resignation was prompted by the discovery that in 2021, he moved out of Duval County and into Nassau County. There are many factors which might cause a family to move. And even though Williams was the elected Sheriff for the Consolidated City of Jacksonville, that decision was personal and is his family’s business. However, by moving across the County line, Sheriff Williams made a conscious decision to leave Duval County.
Williams has since told various reporters he does not plan on coming back to Jacksonville. Except, you know, to commute to work. Many people who called him a great friend seemed shocked by the news. His tight political allies seemed to have no idea. Only time will tell if his move was politically strategic.
Article VIII, Section (1)(g) of the Florida Constitution states, “Counties operating under county charters shall have all powers of local self-government not inconsistent with general law, or with special law approved by vote of the electors.” Williams’ first statements seemed to have been poorly advised to the contrary. He thought he could move and still remain Sheriff.
The legalese off the Charter of the City of Jacksonville holds: “Section 8.03. – Vacancy. If the sheriff should die, resign, or remove his residence from Duval County during his term of office, or be removed from office, the office of sheriff shall become vacant.” That’s the guidance.
As government lawyer Chris Hand wrote (link: https://chrishandfl.medium.com/in-defense-of-the-charter-7058f26f017a), “The Charter abides… The Charter is not just some list of recommended actions or a compilation of helpful best practices for local government officials. In the City of Jacksonville, the Charter is the law.”
The Office of General Counsel is now required to determine when he moved and what result the abandonment of Duval County had on his decisions, rulings and orders of the past. Williams might also be required to refund a portion of his salary.
Yet, the Office of General Counsel has decided to punt the ball down the field. On the day OGC’s decision was due, Williams penned a resignation letter, stating,
He named an official retirement date of June 10, 2022. However, it is a legal impossibility for a Sheriff to retire as Sheriff, when said Sheriff is no longer Sheriff. However, this move seemed to temporarily satisfy the OGC, who released a “draft” opinion it indicated was not final.
The Zillow listing for Williams’ rental residence in Fernandina Beach, Florida said, “Entertainer’s DREAM in Prestigious Golf Club Community of Amelia National.” It was owned by Ellen Moser who has an address in California. The Jacksonville Sheriff never bought this house, but it was his listed address when he sold his home in Jacksonville on March 4, 2021. It appears to be a temporary rental house. Surely, someone played golf with him there. Someone was entertained. Someone knew he moved.
The deed for the Williams’ current residence notes the property was acquired on February 25, 2022 from AVH North Florida, LLC, a Florida Limited Liability located in Scottsdale, Arizona. The recorded deed is public, but we choose not to publish the address. Michael and Jodi Williams are now residents of Fernandina Beach in Nassau County despite his being the Sheriff of Duval County.
Now here we are in June of 2022. Over a year has passed since Sheriff Williams vacated his post.
An Appointment and Four Elections
Someone, somewhere in a boardroom of a large shampoo company once told an employee to add “repeat” to the instructions, “Wash. Rinse. Repeat.” Certainly, people knew how to wash their hair, but the instructions told them to repeat the process. Twice the product. Twice the money. It is an illusion of necessity.
Mike Williams was elected Sheriff on July 1, 2015. He was re-elected fairly easily on March 19, 2019. His tenure has been relatively status quo- little true progress, the same buzzwords and yet nothing to be too mad about. In fact, the only blip on an otherwise unremarkable tenure, was another DeSantis / Stermon connection. When Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Commissioner Rick Swearingen retired, Mike Williams was bandied about as a potential replacement. Williams himself quashed those rumors on March 30, 2022 when he told WJXT’s Jim Piggott, “I appreciate being mentioned but I’m not interested. My plan is to finish my term as Sheriff. Thanks.” If Williams had known he was no longer Sheriff under the Charter at the time, his decision probably would have been vastly different.
There is guidance for filling the vacancy. The Charter directs, “The vacancy in the office of sheriff shall be temporarily filled with an acting sheriff who shall be appointed by the Governor and who shall serve until a successor sheriff is qualified and elected.”
The sudden retirement of Williams opened a door for Governor DeSantis. Rumors swirled that DeSantis would either appoint T.K. Waters or the current undersheriff Pat Ivey, who was seen with Kent Stermon leading up to Williams’ retirement announcement. Rumors of meetings between the Fraternal Order of Police, Ivey and Stermon were common. Then, of course, they were all seen together downtown.
On June 6, 2022, DeSantis appointed Pat Ivey as interim Sheriff. In the same breath, he endorsed T.K. Waters for Sheriff.
However, that is the illusion. The ringmasters had likely met and decided what they wanted. And all fingers point towards one candidate- TK Waters. Even when Williams was mentioned for the FDLE appointment, WJXT’s Jim Piggott reported, “Political observers and some inside the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office have suggested that it would have been JSO Chief of Investigations T.K. Waters, who’s a candidate for sheriff, and that could have given him an edge in the election next year.”
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Waters has a political action committee, which is a bit of a spin off on Williams’s PAC, A Safe Jacksonville, to which Waters was a donor. Waters PAC is named A Safer Jacksonville for All. Clever, right?
Under Florida law, no contributor can give more than $1,000 per election to the campaign for a candidate for local office. Since the primary and general elections are counted separately, that makes for an eventual total of $2,000 per contributor. However, political committees, registered with either the local supervisor of elections or the state Division of Elections, are not subject to these contribution limits.
As of April 30, 2022, Water’s PAC reported $830,900 in donations. Stermon was one of the first donors with donation of $12,500. The usual supporters of a “Tim Baker” run campaign were also there. You may recall, Baker was featured in Folio’s, “The Circus.” Baker worked with Brian Hughes on Lenny Curry’s campaign for Mayor of Jacksonville. “Those who knew the two said Hughes and Baker delved deep into the lives of their candidates and stored information to be used either for those they represented or against them. The two were a formidable force and became very successful in Tallahassee and in other parts of Florida.”
In looking at the donation list, there is an extraordinary amount of money donated by contractors with the largest coming from far outside of Duval County. $150,000 was donated by Gunner/Houston Ltd. Its director is listed as James G. Adams. He also is listed as a director of Gunslinger Air, LLC, which donated another $50,000. That’s nearly 25% of donations coming from rather atypical source.
Another $50,000 was donated by J.B. Coxwell Contracting, Inc. and Summit Contracting Group, Inc. added $45,000 through itself and another $20,000 through Summit Construction Management. Padgett Nicole Sanzosti noted Summit Contracting for another $25,000. The vast majority of large donations come from businesses one would not expect to be heavy hitters in a campaign about the chief law enforcement officer of Jacksonville.
Baker has the big endorsements, which generally also coincide with his personal rolodex. Melissa Nelson, State Attorney for Florida’s Fourth Judicial District, was a guest on WJCT’s radio talk show First Coast Connect in April and said, “I’ve watched him (Waters) and I know his work. I’m proud of what we’re doing and I want it to continue, and so I’ll tell you I personally solicited him and asked him to get involved in this race because I think it matters.” In 2021, Williams and former JSO sheriff and current U.S. Rep. John Rutherford held a press conference to publicly endorse Thomas “TK” Waters as his successor.
The other candidates up for election are special events chief (and fellow Republican) Mathew Nemeth; Assistant Chief Lakesha Burton (Democrat); Duval County School Police Assistant Chief Wayne Clark, and former PIO and television consultant Ken Jefferson.
Circus ringleader and political consultant, Baker, also added something new to the mix this election cycle. Baker’s wife, Jessica Baker, is running for House District 12. She has been endorsed by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and former Sheriff Mike Williams. She has also received a donation to her PAC from Kent Stermon. Curry and Stermon also teamed up as hosts to raise money for Herschel Walker, who is running for a congressional seat in Georgia. The event noted it was a private dinner with contributions capped at $5,800 per person. As you can see, DeSantis, Curry, Williams and Stermon commonly take photos pumping each other up. They are tight. And now T.K. has the invitation to be their next made man.
It’s shampoo. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
The Mike Drop Caused Massive Interference
Mike Williams abandoned Duval County well over a year ago. Some will say he simply failed to update his address. Others will claim it is fraud. And some may say everything he signed was invalid. In fact, some definitely will. No matter the fall-out, whether by mistake or on purpose, Williams’ resignation is not simply a resignation. It provided an opportunity for the powers-that-be to strategically promote and place candidates who are loyal to a specific political agenda rather than candidates devoted to what is good for the City of Jacksonville.
The void left by Williams seems like it might be a mistake. Maybe Williams simply didn’t know the rules of the Charter. Or is this what DeSantis, et al want us to see?