Sumter commissioners suspended from office

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

Felony perjury charges against a pair of county commissioners are egregious enough to warrant the men’s suspension, Gov. Ron DeSantis decreed Thursday. DeSantis decided that “it is in the best interests of the citizens of Sumter County and the citizens of the state of Florida” that Oren Miller and Gary Search be barred from conducting commission business amid charges they lied under oath to state investigators. The suspension is effective immediately for the two men, who were arrested on Dec. 15 and face up to five years in prison if convicted. Both men have pled not guilty, and their arraignment in Marion County court is set for Jan. 18.

Neither returned email or phone requests for comment on the governor’s action.

DeSantis also has the power to appoint interim replacements, but did not immediately say if he intends to do so.

The charges against Miller and Search were filed after investigators said that subpoenaed phone records prove both men lied to them in separate interviews about a series of phone calls between them.

Their statements were made under oath during 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 prohibits them from doing so in back channels.

It is also illegal for a person to act as a private go-between among officials in hopes of one official swaying others, a role that Miller’s wife is alleged to have played in advocating changes to animal control.

In response to three complaints, the two men were questioned separately before State Attorney Bill Gladson, Assistant State Attorney Conrad Juergensmeyer and Assistant Sate Attorney Russell Suess.

Lt. Tom Ford with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office also appeared on Aug. 17 via phone for Search’s voluntary questioning and in-person on Oct. 6 when Miller was compelled to testify by subpoena.

Search testified under oath, with his attorney present, that he’d had no private phone conversations with Miller, and that he had only communicated with Miller’s wife after she called him on his home telephone. He further stated “that they had nothing personal to discuss, that their wives have nothing personal to discuss.”

Miller testified under oath to the same investigators that he’d had no private phone calls with Search “after January or February” of 2021, saying, “We did at first. After about the first two or three months, all phone calls stopped, maybe three or four months.”

However investigators have phone records showing 47 calls between Miller and Search between the November election and July. The records also show communication between Search and Miller’s wife on his personal cell phone and no calls from her to his home phone.

“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 county-issued cell phones.

Noncriminal infractions of the Government in the Sunshine Law are punishable by up to a $500 fine, and a knowing violation is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

However, the third-degree perjury charge of lying under oath to investigators in an official proceeding, carries a penalty of up to a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

Assistant State Attorney Christopher Small said he could not discuss any further pending charges because the case against Miller and Search is still an open investigation.

Gubernatorial suspensions and interim appointments are rare in Florida but not unprecedented.

Most notably, in 2002, then-Gov. Jeb Bush suspended and later selected the replacements for four Escambia County commissioners after a grand jury indicted them on charges ranging from bribery, racketeering and violations of the Government in the Sunshine Law.

Last year, DeSantis made more than 200 gubernatorial appointments, including several replacements for vacancies, deaths and misconduct at local levels.

— DeSantis is expected to name an interim replacement for Monroe County Commissioner Eddie Martinez, who resigned last month after being arrested on a charge of domestic abuse. DeSantis last September named a replacement on the same board after a commissioner died.

— DeSantis recently chose two appointees to the Broward County commission to replace board members running for Congress.

— Last summer, DeSantis suspended Lake Wales City Commissioner Kristen Fitzgerald after she was arrested on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and interference with child custody. In that case, the four remaining commissioners selected a local church pastor to serve as interim commissioner.

— In 2018, DeSantis suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel for dereliction of duty after the Parkland school shooting.

Commissioner Gary Breeden declined to comment on Thursday’s news, but Doug Gilpin joined Chairman Craig Estep in assuring citizens that the board would press forward.

“If our governor feels this is a necessary action, I support him,” Gilpin said. “We still have a quorum with three commissioners. It’s unfortunate that this has happened in Sumter County, but we’ll work though this. Sumter County is strong, we have businesses that are thriving, and our citizens are well served. That won’t change.”

In other developments relating to the case:

— County Attorney Jennifer Rey notified all commissioners of the governor’s orders, contact information for Miller and Search was temporarily removed from the county website, only to be added back later.

— Prosecutors have shared their intended evidence list with Search’s attorney. It includes copies of the commissioners’ phone records, social media posts, county records, emails and transcripts of statements made to investigators.

— The Property Owners Association of The Villages, which vigorously backed Miller’s and Search’s campaign, has published a statement saying it “does NOT back down from its support” of the men. However, it cancelled a February speaking appearance by Miller’s wife. She was to have addressed the group on her views of county animal services — the very issue that triggered the criminal investigation.

Curt Hills is a managing editor with the Daily Sun. He can be reached at (352) 753-1119, ext. 5287 or curt.hills@thevillagesmedia.com. Keith Pearlman is a specialty editor with the Daily Sun. He can be reached at (352) 753-1119, ext. 5347 or keith.pearlman@thevillagesmedia.com.