Dirty Tricks Ops: part of Escambia politics

“Bubba-Gate” –Mark Clabaugh’s alleged attempted burglary of Karen Sindel’s home– isn’t the first dirty tricks operation for a political campaign in Escambia County.

Clabaugh is a vocal political supporter of former County Administrator George Touart and a companion of Touart and former Escambia County Sheriff Ron McNesby at the Homestead Diner on Fairfield and Pace.

Touart has admitted that he knew Clabaugh was going to the Star Lake house to check on whether Sindel lived in the home. The self-employed “consultant” and sometime charter boat deckhand was caught with a camera by Sindel trying to enter her home through the French doors on the back of the house. Clabaugh was arrested Thursday afternoon and is out of jail on a $5,000 bond.

Since my interview with him on Thursday afternoon, Touart has changed his story and has told PNJ reporter Jamie Page that he “encouraged him not to go there.” The former county administrator didn’t tell me that and I gave him ample opportunity to disavow the reported crime.

When I hung up the phone with Touart, I was stunned that Touart knew about Clabaugh going to the Sindel home and didn’t express any outrage over the burglary attempt. He was more upset with Sindel, a woman alone in her home, reporting his campaign supporter for breaking into her home than with Clabaugh.

Touart will try to “spin” this, but he said what he said.

Unfortunately, dirty trick ops have been a part of Escambia County politics for decades. Former State Senator and County Commissioner W.D. Childers would hire every election season a private investigator to dig up whatever dirt he could find on his opponents – then would run full-page ads on the discoveries in the PNJ.

Childers called the political attacks “puttin’ the acid out.” When he ran for re-election to the state senate against builder Jim Cronley in 1988, he accused Cronley of not paying federal income taxes. When he beat Williemae Stansberry for the County Commission District 1 seat in 2000, he called his attacks on her past legal and financial troubles “voter education.”

The Ron McNesby campaigns were infamous for their political dirty tricks. McNesby was named in a lawsuit for allegedly trying to sabotage the campaign of Democratic opponent John Powell in 2004 and later prevent him from being hired by communities out of state.

The suit also named two deputies from the former administration, Chief Deputy Larry Smith and Lt. Rex Blackburn; a political consulting company and its president, Michael Swinehart; and a private investigator, Jimmy R. Calhoon. All were involved in the 2004 election.

The court documents said the McNesby campaign allegedly disseminated information about Powell that was known to be false and also went as far as to deliver flowers to Powell’s home to insinuate to his wife that he was having an affair.

Calhoon, the documents said, was hired to uncover “smut” on Powell in 2004 and knowingly collected and distributed false information about Powell’s tenure in the Carolinas.

The private investigator looked for former employees who had been disciplined by the department and “only attempted to interview those individuals whom he believed [would] have derogatory or false information about the plaintiff,” according to the complaint.

As the race for office began to heat up in the fall of 2004, Powell’s suit, which was settled out of court, claimed a bouquet appeared at his residence at a time of day when his wife was home alone. The flowers came with a love note that made it look like Powell was having an affair. According to the court documents, Powell and his wife went to the flower shop to see who had paid for the mysterious arrangement. The cash transaction was caught on the store’s security camera, and Powell identified one of the people who paid for the flowers as an employee of the Escambia County Sheriff’s office, according to court documents.

The suit also claimed some Escambia County deputies conducted surveillance on Powell and his supporters “in an effort to intimidate and harass” members of his campaign.

The McNesby campaign’s dirty tricks continued in 2008 election after the heavily-favored two-term incumbent was upset in the Republican primary by David Morgan. McNesby supporter, Goodloe “Red” Farrington, Jr., switched party’s to support ECSO veteran Larry Scapecchi.

Farrington created and distributed a flier that accused Morgan of singing and dancing at a local strip club. The fliers depicted Morgan with a drawn-on mustache and claimed he danced and sang on stage Friday and Saturday nights at Arety’s Angels strip club. The State Attorney’s Office did not pursue criminal charges in the matter.

The buzz behind the “karaoke-gate” was McNesby or someone in his campaign had convinced Farrington that Morgan had posted something on the LEO Affairs website attacking Farrington’s mother and McNesby’s mother.

Now we have Mark Clabaugh, who has posted over 200 times on the pnj.com website under the name “MHClabaugh.”

The bizarre thing is that Clabaugh’s own candidate doesn’t live his district on a daily basis. Touart has told me that he will by the time of the election, but his neighbors see him regularly at his Inverness home in east Pensacola.

If Sindel didn’t live in the house –which she does, by the way-, it wouldn’t disqualify her from running. She only needs to establish residency in District 2 at the time of election, according to Florida Division of Elections.

So if Clabaugh had discovered the house empty, it would not have disqualified Sindel. Was there another reason he was there? What would he have photographed once he entered the house – Medicine cabinet? Bedroom? Personal financial records? Was Clabaugh there to plant something in the house, such as wiretapping devices?

This all sounds far-fetched, but is it?

Why is the District 2 race so important to Clabaugh, Touart, McNesby and their buddies?

Note: During his Florida Senate career, W.D. Childers was a big proponent of expanding the “shoot to kill” that allows homeowners to shoot unwanted intruders on their property. Clabaugh is fortunate that he was shot for his dirty political stunt.