FBI inquiry into Rep. Cliff Stearns campaign ends abruptly

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Two years ago, former Clay County Clerk of the Circuit Court Jimmy Jett accused supporters of then-U.S. Rep. Cliff Sterns of offering incentives — either campaign funding or a job — in an attempt to get him to drop out of the race for the redistricted Florida’s Third Congressional District.

Recently uncovered FBI documents show the agency was looking into the claims, writes Bill Thompson of the Ocala StarBanner, with high-level agents from both the FBI and U.S. Justice Department involved in validating Jett’s claims.

But then, Thompson writes, the investigation stopped. There was no reason given.

Providing 35 pages (out of what appears to be at least 61 pages) of densely redacted documents, FBI officials explained it was out of privacy concerns, citing rules against exposing certain investigatory techniques.

As a result, several key issues are missing from the records, including recorded conversations between Jett and people involved with Sterns’ campaign, such as former Florida education secretary Jim Horne and Jud Sapp, an Oak Park businessperson.

Stearns would not respond to repeated interview requests and denied any wrongdoing.

Jett left his Clay County office in 2012, after serving for 26 years as county commissioner and court clerk. He told Thompson he takes some solace over the release of the FBI report.

Ted Yoho was facing Stearns, Jett and former state Sen. Steve Oelrich in the GOP primary for the Third Congressional District, which covers North Florida between the Gulf of Mexico and the Jacksonville suburbs. The area includes sections of Marion and Alachua counties.

Yoho defeated Sterns, ending a career in Washington that spanned 24 years.

Jett had told a crowd of Republican voters in March 2012 that Clay County backers “bribed” him to leave the race. He told the audience that Sterns said he would support him originally, but then decided to join the race himself.

Jett insists the FBI has evidence to back up the claims. Sterns responded publicly that Jett is a liar.

Although the scandal eventually died down, the newly released documents show that Justice Department investigators were attempting to introduce a “sting” operation.

But it never happened. The operation shut down just before Jett was to hold a meeting with Sterns supporters and secretly record the conversation.

Jett blames politics in the “highest echelons” of the Justice Department. House Speaker John Boehner happened to be in Clay County for a fundraiser, and Washington nixed the idea, fearing the Speaker might become involved with something in which he had no part.

Reports compiled by one FBI agent say that senior officials gave permission for Jett to record calls with Horne and Sapp, on March 1 around 8:25 p.m.

Agents listened to four calls between Jett and others, with only Jett’s part of the conversation noted in the documents. Jett said in the conversations he was willing to “put my own selfishness away” and “do whatever is best for the Republican Party.”

On March 2, senior investigators heard the recordings and agreed to a request by Jacksonville FBI agents to record an in-person meeting between Jett, Stearns and supporters.

That meeting was to happen at Sapp’s house 3:30 p.m. that day.

After working throughout the day on approval for Jett to wear a wire to the one-on-one meetings, word came down from “FBI headquarters and DOJ (Department of Justice)” denying the request for either another phone recording or in-person meetings.

Advised not to discuss his FBI involvement, Jett eventually went against their counsel and announced he would stay in the race, as well as working with federal agents.

Jett also received a copy of the final report, but it  was also extremely redacted, leading him to file an appeal.

“I want the conversations. I want all of it,” Jett told Thompson.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.