Party poitics in a nonpartisan race? 

The scandal that threatens to deflate the higher political aspirations of Orange County Commissioner Bob Freeman started innocently enough at a party in January. A woman named Kathy Hillary told an acquaintance that, for a price, Freeman, a Realtor, had offered to broker the sale of property she owned near Windermere. Freeman later joined the majority of the commission in voting for a favorable rezoning of the property despite objections from neighbors.;;This tantalizing tidbit of potentially incriminating information found its way to the offices of Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar. For the next two months, Lamar's office attempted to convince Hillary to repeat the allegation to them. Finally she did. That just about sums up the entirety of the case against Freeman. Four months later, "All we have here is a complaint," acknowledges Randy Means, spokesman for Lamar's office.;;In an apolitical world, the story would probably end here. Despite their expertise and resources, Lamar's investigators have never been able to find another shred of evidence proving Freeman offered to sell his influence. And Freeman has exercised his constitutional right to decline to speak with prosecutors. That adds up to zilch for the prosecution.;;But this is Orange County, where Freeman, a Republican, is expected to file to run against the anointed Democrat, attorney Mel Martinez, for Orange County Chairman. (The office is nominally nonpartisan.) Lamar is a Democrat with the power to bring a criminal investigation against anyone living in the two-county region. He brought this power to bear against Freeman at a crucial time. And because of leaks to the Orlando Sentinel and, recently, a letter to current Chairman Linda Chapin that was circulated widely, Freeman has been forced to defend himself against reports related to the investigation.;;Meanwhile, Martinez has begun gathering political allies, while refraining from talking at all about issues, much less responding to scandals.;;"This whole thing has been bizarre," says Freeman. He blames Lamar and Chapin, "two prominent Democrats that run not only the state's attorney's office, but downtown Orlando.";;Freeman has abided by his attorney's advice not to respond to Lamar's baiting requests and submit to questioning under oath. Instead, he has submitted to and passed a lie detector test by an experienced FBI agent in hopes of convincing Lamar of his innocence. Meanwhile, his attorney, William Sheaffer, has been exchanging nasty letters with Lamar. Twenty years ago, Lamar hired Sheaffer as a state attorney. But gradually Sheaffer has become convinced Lamar is using his position to keep a cloud over Freeman, Martinez's only legitimate opposition.;;"Do I think he's a master politician for the Democratic Party? Absolutely," Sheaffer says. "After a while, things quit being coincidental.";;On May16, the day Martinez publicly announced his quest for the chairmanship, Lamar sent a letter to Sheaffer questioning why Freeman wouldn't testify under oath. He sent a copy of that letter to Chapin. Eventually, it wound up in the hands of media and political leaders. Irate at such a public airing of his clients' criminal investigation, Sheaffer fired off a letter requesting that Gov. Lawton Chiles appoint an independent prosecutor to replace Lamar's office in investigating Freeman.;;Lamar has declined to consider removing himself, insisting that he sent Chapin the letter as standard procedure of informing superiors when investigating government employees. "We don't care one iota about a commissioners race," Means says.;;The issue is not whether Lamar has used his office to help fellow Democrats, but whether it appears this is so. Here's the scenario: a Democratic prosecutor sharing with other Democratic officials details of a criminal investigation of a Republican seeking an office coveted by the Democratic Party. Certainly something appears a tad improper.;;But Lamar's office denies there is any need for a special prosecutor simply because of the political implications. "That would neuter your prosecutors and cops," Means says, adding Lamar's office has investigated other public officials, including state representatives who actually control their budget.;;Perhaps coincidentally, the investigation is finally drawing to a close. A report is expected to be made public and the case shut within a few days. No charges are expected. With all the leaks, the report almost certainly will be anticlimactic. Long-term implications are likely only for Freeman, who is left holding all the dirty laundry.

More by Lawrence Budd


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