This past summer I joined Carlos Miller and Jeff Gray here at PINAC. In doing so I brought together PINAC and The Open Records Project, which I began about ten years ago in an effort to educate, inform and activate Citizens in the effective use of state public records laws as a means to empower them to hold government agencies and officials accountable to the public and under the law.
I was also recently asked to produce an “television” program for the newly formed internet based “station,” OccupyTV. The show airs each Thursday night at 7 pm, 10 pm, and 1 am EST. The topics covered in the show will often overlap with the issues associated with PINAC: misuse and abuse of police power, citizens’ rights to record law enforcement and other public officials, and the public’s right to know and to have unfettered access to public records.
In the first episode I introduced myself and my own work in these areas by focusing on one struggle that I had with corrupt police and politicians in Alachua, Florida that began in 2006.
The story entails issues of police brutality and abuse of authority, rights to record public officials, rights to access public records, and government corruption.
In April of 2006, having been convinced that I could offer something positive by running for the State (Florida) House of Representatives in North Central Florida, I engaged in my first official act as a candidate.
I lived in Gainesville, the county seat of Alachua County, eleven miles south of a small town of approximately 7,000 known as Alachua. In the twenty years that I lived in Alachua County I had never spent much time in the city of Alachua – mostly driving through it on the way to the springs along the nearby rivers.
I had no idea that what I would find in Alachua was a City racked by corruption, ruled with an iron fist assisted by a government enforcement agency (the Alachua Police Department or APD), and existing in a world where the Civil Rights era never had an effect. Literally, those with dark skins still lived – consciously kept to their “proper place” – on the other side of the tracks.
It was April – and that meant it was the season for local municipal elections throughout the County. Thus on Tuesday April 11th I went to the City of Alachua to obtain ballot access petitions, so as to place my name on the ballot without paying the high fees, and to meet the citizens of the city and hear about their concerns.
I was not expecting what I encountered. Numerous residents came to me, knowing me by reputation from past challenges to corruption from taking on Florida Blue Key, the State’s “Good Ole’ Boy System” which was rooted and based at the University of Florida in Gainesville – culminating in a prominent lawsuit filed in 1995 and finally taken to trial in 1998 and 1999, to an attempt the previous year to have my then boss, University President Bernie Machen, found guilty for knowingly and willfully destroying and denying access to public records.
What they told me was difficult to grasp – even with my experiences with some of the most extreme and overt corrupt actors in the State. What I was told was that there was a fear by residents of retaliation from the local police force if anyone challenged the authority of a small ruling elite, of a handful of prominent land-holding families, of retaliation against the African American community by the local elite if they did not “know their place,” and retaliation against local businesses by City Hall if they dared challenge the status quo. Many of those who brought these stories to me – while I stood outside of the local Recreation Center which served as the largest of the polling locations in the election – broke down in tears. Their fears, I was to learn quickly, were well-founded.
I stated that I would inquire into all of what I was being told – but one allegation stood out as one that could be looked into, in fact directly observed in part, that very night. I was told about a history of election fraud in the local City Commission elections of the years – and particularly of a history of tampering with the absentee ballots to swing elections in the direction of the local regime’s candidates. And I was given information about similar activities in that year’s election.
The 2006 election was actually quite unique in Alachua. The incumbent, James Lewis, had served relatively unchallenged in that office – for forty consecutive years. That alone raised a red flag. But in this year’s election another notable local man, from a prominent family, Lewis Irby had been able to muster a serious challenge to the local cabal’s candidate. A larger turnout than usual had been coming to the polls. And although there were valid reports of direct threats to people who dared post Irby signs in their yards or at their places of business, among other attempts at coercing the local population to capitulate to the pressures of the ruling elites, it looked as if the challenger was likely to win. That was when the rumors of problems with the absentee ballots began to spread.
So that night, as I had promised, I went to the Canvassing Board meeting. What I witnessed there that night set off a multi-year Odyssey which still affects my life negatively to this day.
I literally watched as the City Manager along with several others on the City staff who were directly, but inappropriately, associated with the Lewis campaign reacted to my presence at City Hall that night.
After the precinct results were turned in and tabulated – indicating that the challenger, Lewis Irby was ahead by 18 votes – there was a strange hiatus with no explanation.
The Canvassing Board, consisting of three members: the Mayor, the City Manager, and one local resident chosen by them, left the chambers. Several individuals were then unlawfully gathering in the Deputy City Clerk’s office where the absentee ballot box was being stored. The Assistant City Clerk was serving as the Supervisor of Elections. This function was delegated to him by the City Manager, Clovis Watson, because Watson was supposed to be Supervisor because in addition he held the office of City Clerk. But as he was also on the Canvassing Board he could not serve in both capacities. Watson, it turned out, held several positions in the City – including a position created just for him: Police Commissioner.
While Watson and the Supervisor of Elections were huddled in the locked office, for over an hour, with the ballot box – another City staff member kept exiting the room, going to the parking lot, and conferring with the candidate and his campaign Treasurer, Hugh Calderwood. Calderwood was the Mayor’s husband (and she was, as stated above, along with Watson one of the three member Canvassing Board charged with determining what votes would be counted and what would be deemed invalid and from that determining the initial ballot count in the election). The staffer, Traci Cain (now the City Manager), would go from the Deputy Clerk’s office with messages for Calderwood, who at one point had me directly pointed out to them as they conferred in the parking lot, and then hurriedly scurry back to the locked office.
After more than an hour of this it was announced that the absentee ballots were ready to be counted. The Deputy Clerk, in his capacity as Supervisor of Elections, made an overly zealous display of carrying the box raised high in the air – and loudly proclaiming that he had the “only key” to the “as yet unlocked box.”
What I witnessed from that point on made it clear. The City officials had, in fact, been tampering with the absentee ballots. And in the process of conducting the election had violated nearly every single law applicable to municipal elections in Florida.
By the next day I had begun an investigation and had obtained sufficient evidence to confidently assert wrongdoing in the conduct of the election. And as the week continued I obtained far more, and far more troubling, evidence.
I offered to bring a lawsuit challenging the elections – but wanted a local resident as a plaintiff, and not just myself (I actually brought the lawsuit on behalf of another organization that I had created in the years prior, known as the Fair Elections Initiative). It took a lot of discussion before someone would volunteer for that role – because of the fear that residents had against retaliation. The initial resident who signed on to the case was about to move out of the state – and thus felt safer to be the first to take this risk. (Eventually we added a number of others who had voted in the election – including some who had cast, or attempted to cast, absentee ballots).
There is a lot more to this aspect of the story that cannot be recounted here – but the next set of events is important to set forth at this time. Working with a University of Florida Law Professor with whom I had taken a number of other cases in the past we filed the legal challenge the following Monday.
I immediately filed a public records request to look at the absentee ballot records (note – I did not say it was limited to the ballots themselves). I did not want them to know, specifically, what I wanted to look at – because I knew they would attempt to alter or destroy the evidence. On Friday I went to City Hall, armed with a digital voice recorder, and demanded to see the records.
All Hell broke loose as the Deputy Clerk reacted to my presence and request, made an issue of my recording, and called the police to have me removed. I had learned that the City had routinely used their local police to remove any citizen who went to City Hall with questions they did not want to hear or answer.
I stood my ground and demanded to meet with the City Manager. He was not in the office (it turns out he almost never was) but agreed to come in. The police reluctantly moved on.
When Watson arrived I had already been seated, with Eileen McCoy – the brave resident who placed her name on the lawsuit along with mine, in Watson’s office. I overheard the ranting of Alan Henderson, the Deputy Clerk/Supervisor of Elections, about my recording what was going on and the particular records (the log of absentee ballots – recording who requested one, when, when it was delivered to them, and whether and when it was received – a document that by law had to be available to me by noon during any day during the election cycle) that I specifically demanded that I be given at that time.
Watson entered his office, sat down, recognized I was recording him (stating “I see you’re recording me, I have no problem with that”), but telling me that even though he consented, legally I had to have that permission to record him. I corrected him. In Florida, as a public official doing public business in a public office, he could be recorded without either his knowledge or consent – because any and all of his actions or statements were by definition public.
Watson did not give me access to the records, contrary to the law, but did say he would get back to me via the phone. He called me later that day as well as emailed me over the weekend. I was given an appointment to review the absentee ballot records on Monday – at 10 am – in City Hall. But he demanded I provide him with a copy of my digital recording (he and the State Attorney’s office were conspiring to arrest me for “wiretapping”). I declined.
On Monday I arrived and began to go through the records. But I did not do what Watson expected – simply count the ballots and learn, lo and behold, they added up to the number the Canvassing Board reported (after they counted the absentee ballots they declared the incumbent the victor by eight votes). Instead I was meticulously studying the envelopes within which they were claimed to have been submitted – and taking copious notes on every detail about them (date, postmark, signature, handwriting, ink color, seal, etc.).
Watson interrupted me with a nervousness clearly in his voice. “Mr. Grapski,” he said, “are you going to do that with ALL the envelopes.” (There were approximately one-hundred and fifty). “Yes,” I abruptly stated, and continued on with my work without raising my head.
Watson then left the room. A few minutes later he returned – this time his voice turned from nervous to clearly “authoritarian.” Mr. Grapski we have to deal with a matter – he said. I barely glanced up – to see Watson, a former body-builder, standing flanked on both sides by armed, uniformed officers and the Chief of Police.
Watson ordered the officers to place me under arrest and taken to jail for wiretapping. He was not only the alleged “victim” – he was the “arresting officer.”
This set off that Odyssey which took several turns for the worst over the next two years. I had proven the election was tampered with and numerous laws violated – including those that constituted felonies by Watson and other City officials. I also filed several other civil actions against the City – including for unlawfully refusing to produce public records, for unlawfully allowing Watson to hold two offices (City Manager and Police Officer), and for Watson and the City defrauding the Police Retirement Fund – to the tune of $1.5 million – by falsely reporting him as a full-time law enforcement officer rather than City Manager.
In retaliation – after I forced the wiretapping case to trial, representing myself in the end, after nine months in which I was literally “banished” by a Court from the City in which I lived – I would be arrested at least two more times. First, in February, at a City Commission meeting. It was not at City Hall – since, mysteriously, City Hall burned down – well, a fire occurred at about 1 am on a Sunday night. No alarms went off – but, given that the building shared a parking lot with the Fire Department, when one of the firemen stepped outside to smoke a cigarette – he smelled smoke, caught the fire in its initial state, and they put it out. The next morning, on the am News, Watson declared that the “heroic acts” of the Fire Department saved almost everything – “except” he added … and then listed a set of records that I had requested under the public records law the week before. Including all of his emails and that of the Mayor – which were not even held on the computers in City Hall which were claimed to be the source of the fire – but on a remote server.
Several months later, a week after Watson learned that I had gotten the State’s Department of Management Services, which is where the Retirement System is managed, to remove his fraudulent status and thus losing that extra $1.5 million, the added percentage he would be given on his pension for being an officer under dangerous duty (in the line of fire), and a two year early retirement date – Watson had the Police Chief attempt to investigate me for potential charges for writing bad checks (the problem is – there was no such issue let alone grounds for a local police department to investigate this) – and even to, without a warrant, obtain private financial information from my local bank.
After meeting with the Deputy Chief of the Department, one of the few I knew who was not corrupt, I was given information and instructions on how to file a complaint about the police involvement in that matter. The following Monday I went to the Police Station to file that complaint – as was required to be given to me under State law.
Instead, after waiting patiently and quietly for nearly twenty-minutes, the Chief came to me, asked me to step outside, and tried to convince me that there was nothing to be concerned about. When I insisted that I was going to file a formal complaint, which the State Attorney said was necessary because he would not directly accept such, I was told that I would not be permitted to do so and was subsequently locked out of the building.
Upon knocking on the door – the Chief followed by two other officers, including the Mayor’s son (the Mayor’s husband had been given a report written by the Chief, over the weekend, by the City Manager – and placed it on the internet. The report concluded I committed no crime – but was a three page diatribe trying to make me look bad as well as revealing private and personal financial information).
The Chief slammed my wrist to knock my digital recorder to the ground and attempted to grab it. When I bent down to pick it up – Officer Patrick Barcia (the Mayor’s son) grabbed me and threw me head-first into the glass wall.
Eventually, as they dragged me into the Station, they banged my head on the metal door jam – briefly knocking me unconscious. I was taken to jail and charged with Trespassing, Disorderly Conduct, Resisting Arrest with Violence, and three counts of Battery on a Law Enforcement Officer.
The next day, while in the custody of the jail, the State Attorney made claims to the Court that I had been engaged in “violent” activities – building on a multi-hundred page dossier the Chief and Watson had provided to the State Attorney demanding I be arrested, charged, prosecuted and sent to prison. Included in it were claims that I was a domestic terrorist.
While I represented myself before the Court, demanding my right to a reasonable condition of release as I was neither a risk of flight nor a risk to the safety of the community, a female Detention Officer assaulted and battered me and tried to forcefully remove me from the video courtroom. I was in the process of addressing the judge as my own counsel.
After the proceeding was over – upon getting me outside the video courtroom – the female officer said she was going to strip search me. I objected on two grounds: it is unlawful for a member of the opposite sex to engage in such activities and only with a case-by-case authorization by the head of the jail can such a strip search be conducted. I demanded to speak with the Sheriff – who I personally knew – and who oversaw the jail.
I was tackled from behind, while on the floor with several officers on top of me, beaten including having my face pummeled into the concrete floor, then sprayed with OC-spray, point blank in the eyes, with an extreme series of slow and meticulous passes across my face. I went into involuntary convulsions. I could not breathe. My airway was closed off by a combination of the swelling as well as the mucous. And then placed head first under a running shower – the equivalent of water-boarding in effect – as the water filled my lungs and further caused me to be unable to breathe.
I was then taken to a holding cell, thrown down forcefully and head-first on the ground, and left there nearly unconscious. I called as best as I could for help – and at one point pulled myself up to the door and attempted to pull myself up to the glass so I could see and be seen. Before standing all the way – I passed out unconscious – hit my head on a metal bench and then the concrete floor.
It would be nearly a week before I got any medical attention. Two days after I was finally admitted to the infirmary, which only happened after a local newspaper did an interview with me in the jail accompanied by photos of my condition, I was taken to the hospital with “weak vital signs.”
Photos from Jail Interview Several Days After Grapski is Beaten and Tortured and a Few Days before he found himself in a Coma
Two further days later – and I awoke, like in the movies, from a coma.
There is much more to this story – but it is briefly told in the video above. I will also provide you with the legal documents from the Federal Civil Rights suit I eventually filed against the City and its officials.
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