Thursday, July 10, 2008

Point/Counterpoint -- August 2006 article re: Former Sheriff's Accusations Against Tom Manuel, Manuel's Charges of Conflict of Interest re: Maguire

Accusations fly

County Commission race heats up during news conference

Publication Date: 08/23/06

More fuel was added to an already fiery District 4 County Commission primary campaign Tuesday as two candidates released documents accusing the other of unethical behavior.

Insisting that a news conference he called was not politically motivated, retired St. Johns County Sheriff Neil Perry said he was "concerned" about challenger Tom Manuel's "long-term associations with people associated with organized crime."

Manuel replied that the "false accusation" was politically motivated.

Incumbent Bruce Maguire "has constantly attacked my integrity, character, honor and my ethical behavior," said Manuel, standing in the spot Perry occupied moments earlier.

"I have taken it," Manuel added. "But today is the day I'm no longer going to take it."

For four years, Manuel said, he had been a business partner of Clifford Perlman, former chief executive officer of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Perlman was later declared "unsuitable" for a gaming license in New Jersey.

"Did (Perlman) know mobsters?" Manuel asked. "Trust me. If you ran a casino in Vegas in the '60s, I'm going to bet you knew mobsters.

"Did I know mobsters? I never had that privilege."

His accusers, Manuel added, were trying to paint him as "guilty of association by association by association."

A spokesman with the New Jersey Gaming Commission confirmed Manuel's denials.

"I don't recall the name of Tom Manuel ever coming up," said Dan Heneghan, public information officer at the Casino Control Commission in Trenton, N.J.

As a reporter, Heneghan said, he covered the commission's 1980 hearings that resulted in a denial of Clifford Perlman's gaming application.

"The commission was unable to determine (Perlman) could be trusted," Heneghan said. "We never identified Clifford Perlman as a mobster."

Standing under a blistering sun in front of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, Perry said he wasn't directly accusing Manuel or his business associates of being gangsters.

However, he said it was up to the media to look into those relationships.

With three retired law enforcement officers at his side, Perry said they were all "concerned about (Manuel's) connections his past associations, his failed business opportunities and his continuous operation in some areas.

"Oftentimes, he has made very light of this. I don't see anything funny about it -- the long-term associations with people associated with organized crime."

Perry was accompanied by retired Sheriff Francis O'Loughlin; George Thornton, retired St. Augustine police chief; and Gene Farnell, a retired special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

Perry was the only one of the four to speak.

He also distributed a packet of documents and two newspaper articles to the assembled reporters.

The material was intended to show Manuel's poor business skills and reputed connections to organized crime.

The packet included information about a 1992 default judgment against Manuel and 10 other investors over a failed gambling casino and hotel in the Netherlands Antilles.

Manuel said he was never ordered to pay on the $6.5 million judgment.

"(Manuel) was a good guy," said Miami attorney Harry Payton, who represented most of the investors in the failed operation. "He cooperated with us and was assisting in working this out.

"Somebody should find the dirt somewhere else."

Perry declined to say who gave him the material for review, other than "some friends of mine, individuals in the Fire Service."

"This is not a political thing at all," Perry said. "This is strictly about getting the information out in the public.

"Mr. Manuel is putting himself up for public scrutiny, and this is what happens."

Maguire said his strategists had been looking into Manuel's background for the past two months.

Perry's focus "was not on endorsing me," Maguire said. "The focus was to say, 'Here are the facts. These are not accusations, not allegations.'

"It wasn't (done by) my origin or thought. I was told they would not endorse me, just expose the facts of Tom Manuel. He scares a lot of people."

Maguire insisted Manuel had ties to the Mafia. Even if his opponent wasn't personally involved in organized crime, Maguire said, "It tells me he accepts (doing business) with it. He had an operational relationship. It's more than an association."

Scoffing at Perry's claim of political neutrality, Manuel changed the focus to what he said are Maguire's ethical lapses.

"I have maintained we have serious problems here in St. Johns County, and we have the fox in the henhouse," Manuel said. "Mr. Maguire and his family own huge pieces of land. They sell that land to developers.

"The developers finance Mr. Maguire's campaign. Mr. Maguire approves the developments."

Manuel distributed a packet of his own to show how members of Maguire's family benefited by selling land for the SilverLeaf Plantation development northwest of World Golf Village.

"This is a document that raises serious concerns about the ethical conduct of Mr. Maguire during his term as commissioner," Manuel said.

"I'm not accusing Mr. Maguire of personally profiting from sales," he added. "I'm saying it raises serious ethical concerns.

"The appearance of impropriety is impropriety. He should have recused himself."

Maguire said the SilverLeaf documents presented by Manuel proved nothing.

"It was just a straight land sale," Maguire said. "If you look at it closely, my family members sold too cheap. I told them that."

He said that if a questionable vote comes up, "I always ask (County Attorney) Dan Bosanko about it."

Maguire said he has recused himself on several votes, such as choosing the Pink Route for the new bridge connection, a vote on a Vilano Beach property and another when his brother's property was involved.

Maguire said he questioned "anything that profited my family."

Craig Maguire said his brother "never had an interest of any kind" in the three parcels sold to the SilverLeaf developers.

He and his brother, Mike, owned two of the parcels, Craig Maguire said. Their aunt owned the third.

"Bruce legally could not recuse himself from a decision that had absolutely no need for recusal," Craig Maguire said. "The sale took place several years prior to SilverLeaf's application.

"For those who want to argue that the value of our other parcels has increased because of SilverLeaf, I would say all development in Northeast Florida has increased the value of all land owned by everyone in Northeast Florida."

Commissioner Ben Rich, who has endorsed Manuel, watched Perry's presentation and Manuel's response.

His reaction suggested that the accusations generated more heat than illumination.

"Never have I been involved in such a bunch of poppycock as I saw here today with these people conducting what amounts to character assassination of Tom Manuel," Rich said.

"Did they say Clifford Perlman was a crook?" he asked. "No.

"Did they say Tom Manuel was a crook? No.

"This is a desperate attempt by an individual about to lose his seat and multiple, multiple, multiple millions of dollars."

Manuel had been the longest-serving member of the county Planning & Zoning Agency when he resigned in April to contend for Maguire's seat on the county commission.

Maguire has been on the commission since 2002.

Republican voters will choose between the two in the Sept. 5 primary.

The victor is virtually assured of election on Nov. 7 because of what will be nominal opposition.

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© The St. Augustine Record

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