All eyes on Districts 1, 5 for Sumter Commission

Oren Miller, left, and Gary Search in their Sumter County jail booking mugshots. Both men were released on bond.

As Sumter voters are choosing commissioners for Districts 1 and 5, new details are emerging in the criminal scandal that unexpectedly put them in play. 

The seats joined the Aug. 23 ballot after Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended commissioners Gary Search and Oren Miller in January on the heels of a felony perjury charge. 

Voters now must choose between DeSantis’ appointed replacements and the man who thrust Search and Miller into office. 

Reed Panos, the Search-Miller campaign architect who remains a staunch supporter, insists the case against them is a collusion between DeSantis and the state attorney.

However, Search’s own words are key to the state’s evidence, the Daily Sun has learned from recordings obtained Wednesday through a public records request.

Search, who resigned his seat and agreed to truthfully testify against Miller in exchange for immunity, spent 90 minutes in May elaborating on a sworn statement he gave a year ago. 

At times, he laughed along with investigators and mused that “I was not prepared, in any way shape or form, for what I got hit with.”

He has now told prosecutors that: 

Dozens of private cellphone calls between him and Miller did occur, even though both men testified under oath that they did not. Both men knew before they testified that the state was investigating potential violations of Florida’s open meeting law that bans elected officials from discussing official business through back channels.

Several calls came just before or just after commission meetings, including a 17-minute call the day after the county attorney admonished commissioners to cease any such communication.

Miller, and no one else, was indeed on the other end of every call, even though Miller’s attorney has argued that someone else might have been using his phone.

Several of the phone conversations involved animal rights issues advocated for by Miller’s wife and criticism against Miller’s fellow commissioners she posted “in thousands of social media posts.”

The men did privately discuss several issues that “were technically county business and weren’t supposed to be talked about,”  according to Search’s attorney, Richard Hornsby. Search acknowledged that the topics went beyond the animal tethering issue to which he has already admitted to what Hornsby called “a few items that are problematic if we’re being sticklers about the law.” Search said those official items included plans for an animal shelter, complaints of illegal burning, storm flooding response, the governor’s Covid vaccine rollout and how to enlist lobbyists to fight DeSantis on impact fee limits..

Panos, who is running for Search’s seat on a pledge to take on DeSantis’s law after ousting his appointees, has asked the public to bankroll Search’s and Miller’s legal defense. 

This year he is again banking on a team of candidates to establish a new majority.

His PAC is promoting Daniel Myslakowski for Miller’s former seat (Miller’s pre-trial hearing is set for October); Andy Bilardello in District 2 and Jeff Bogue in District 4.

Myslakowski has faced his own legal troubles, having done jail time for an assault in which the victim was a police officer.

Last week all three men running under Panos’ banner of “not developer-first, no ties to special interests” came under fire when campaign finance reports revealed they had each received $7,000 in last-minute donations from outside developers, contractors and real estate agents.

The $15,000 windfall to Panos’s PAC from a Marion-County based developer was the largest of all.

Specialty Editor Keith Pearlman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5347, or keith.pearlman@thevillagesmedia.com