Sumter commissioners get perjury trial date

Commissioners Oren Miller, left, and Gary Search were elected in 2020 after running a joint campaign.

A trial date has been set for suspended Sumter County commissioners Oren Miller and Gary Search, with jury selection set to begin April 25.

Miller and Search each face up to five years in prison if convicted on a felony charge of lying under oath to state investigators.

Both men pleaded not guilty last month and waived their right to appear at their arraignment yesterday in Marion County court.

A pre-trial conference has been set for April 19.

Prosecutors have built their case around phone records they say contradict statements the men made under oath in a criminal investigation into possible violations of Florida’s government in the Sunshine Law.

That law requires elected officials to carry out the duties of their position in public forums and not through back-channel communications.

The law also prohibits elected officials from using another person as a go-between, a role Miller’s wife is alleged to have played.

The issue came to light in the commissioners’ first six weeks on the job when Miller moved to form an animal advocacy group that would include his wife and some of her friends.

At that Feb. 16, 2021, commission meeting, County Administrator Bradley Arnold responded that he believed he had witnessed a violation of the Sunshine Law, since Search already had proposed that same action after speaking with Miller’s wife.

Both Search and Miller had completed state-mandated training on the law.

“I knew they had been warned,” said Marilyn Iskra, of the Village of Osceola Hills, one of two Villages residents at the Feb. 16 meeting who filed a formal complaint. “They’re not responding, so I thought maybe we should get the state attorney involved.”

Phil Montalvo, of the Village of Linden, a retired attorney who is running for a seat on Community Development District 12, also was concerned enough to file a complaint.

“I was a supervisor with a CDD in the Orlando area for six or seven years,” he said. “I am intimately familiar with the Sunshine Law’s do’s and don’ts.”

Both Iskra and Montalvo say they’ve heard the conspiracy theories floated by Miller-Search supporters that The Villages Developer is responsible for the investigation, arrests and suspensions.

Neither Iskra and Montalvo are employed by The Villages, nor were they directed to file a complaint by anyone, they both told the Daily Sun.

“I’ve never spoken to a Morse, and I still don’t,” Montalvo said of the family that built The Villages.

Iskra pointed to the latest newsletter of the Property Owners Association of The Villages, a group that endorsed Miller and Search, as an illustration of the disinformation campaign.

“It’s so hypocritical,” she said. “The Board of Directors ‘urges residents to wait for facts to be uncovered before passing judgment on these two individuals,’ yet the POA has passed judgment that these two individuals are completely innocent and that the investigation is part of a ‘calculated process since the night of the election in 2020, and only now is the revenge plot starting to unfold.’”

She said that kind of blowback may discourage people who witness crime in local government from submitting complaints “for fear of false accusations of ‘being in the Developer’s pocket’ if the person allegedly committing the crime is a POA candidate. It is a sad day that POA bullying has reached this level in The Villages against people who don’t agree with the POA’s narrative.”

Weeks after Iskra and Montalvo’s complaints, Inverness attorney George Angeliadis filed a third complaint, alleging the same Sunshine Law violation and claiming that Miller also failed to release documents as required under public record laws.

The State Attorneys Office launched an investigation in June, and invited Search and Miller to provide a statement.

On Aug. 17, Search stated under oath that there had been no calls between him and Miller after the election, and that his only communication with Miller’s wife had been a call she made to his home phone.

On Oct. 6, Miller stated under oath to the same investigators that he and Search did talk by personal cellphone after the election, but stopped after January “when we realized that could be an issue.”

In fact, investigators say, subpoenaed phone records show 47 calls between Miller and Search between the November election and the next July.

“Many of these phone calls were either just before or just after Sumter County Commission meetings,” investigators noted, adding that none of the calls were made on official government-issued cellphones.

They say the records show communication between Search and Miller’s wife on his personal cellphone and no calls from her to his home phone.

Since the men’s arrest a month ago, Miller and a friend of Search have been asking the public to bankroll their defense through online fundraisers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Jan. 6 suspended the men from office but has not yet said whether he will appoint interim replacements.

To view arrest reports, click here.