Former backer of Rep. Jimmie Smith says he was asked to be shill to take votes away from Nancy Argenziano

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Allegations of dirty tricks and even a state attorney’s investigation are roiling the already bitter contest between former Republican lawmaker Nancy Argenziano, now an independent, and freshman GOP Representative Jimmie Smith of Inverness, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.

Argenziano had already charged that a “shill” was recruited to run as a Democrat in the House District 34 race in a bid to split the vote with her, allowing Smith to win.

This week, one of two men now alleged to have been recruited for that purpose, James Brunswick, came forward. He and Argenziano also said that law enforcement is now involved.

Brunswick told reporters this week that an ally of Smith approached him and said he wanted him to run in the Nature Coast–based seat as a Democrat.

“He told me I’d be taken care of, meaning financially. I had (a financial) issue… and also with my time element involved, all my time and expenses and everything,” Brunswick said. “And he said, ‘You’ll be taken care of, don’t worry.'”

Brunswick, of Floral City, alleged that the person who approached him was Bill Grant, a lawyer and a Democrat who had previously represented Brunswick in a foreclosure case, and thus would have known Brunswick needed money.

Grant, through a lawyer, has denied the allegation.

Brunswick said in a news conference in Homosassa this week that after the initial conversation with Grant, he called Smith. Brunswick alleges that Smith told him that his campaign had found someone else to get in the race, someone who had no previous arrest record, unlike Brunswick who was twice convicted of felony drug crimes in the 1980s.

Smith also denies the whole thing.

“At no time have I, or my campaign, interfered with the Democrats’ selection of a candidate in the race for the State House,” Smith said in a statement. “Nor have I asked anyone, at any time, to interfere with the Democrats’ primary.”

“This just appears to be some political thing,” said A. R. Mander of Dade City, Grant’s attorney, who said that if charges were filed against his client, they would “fight vigorously.”

After Brunswick talked to Smith, another unknown candidate, Robert Raymond Goocher, got in the race on the Democratic side in May.

Goocher, 28, has never voted, didn’t appear to campaign much and didn’t speak with the media or participate in campaign forums, though he did put out two mailers and win 28 percent of the Democratic vote.

Goocher lost in the Democratic primary to Lynn Dostal, who had been filed to run in the race against Smith since before Argenziano got in. After the primary, Dostal dropped out, leaving just Argenziano and Smith.

Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson confirmed the investigation into how candidates may have been recruited but said there is no timetable for its conclusion.

“If it comes out before the election, fine,” he said. “I’m only interested in getting to the truth.”

HD 34 includes Citrus County and part of Hernando County. It’s a conservative district, and Smith is a conservative Republican, probably known best for sponsoring a 2012 bill to test state workers for drugs on a random basis. Republican Gov. Rick Scott won the district handily over Democrat Alex Sink in 2010.

Argenziano is well-known there, though. She represented the area for years, elected as a Republican to the state House in 1997 and to the Senate in 2003. In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist appointed her to the Public Service Commission.

She had planned to run this year as a Democrat against Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland in Congressional District 2, but a judge ruled that she didn’t change her registration to Democrat early enough under a new law.

That led Argenziano to run in her old district,

Earlier this month, the Citrus County Chronicle reported that Smith had recommended Goocher’s father, who owns the auto shop where the ex-candidate is employed, for the Citrus County Hospital Board. Grant is the board’s attorney, and Smith told the Chronicle that Grant was responsible for the recommendation. Weeks after it was made, the younger Goocher filed to run against Doster.

In his statement, however, Smith said the report was out of context.

“Any advancement of people for gubernatorial appointments was done with one goal; ensuring the Governor had a list of highly qualified people to consider when filling positions important to our community,” Smith said.

Dostal said that it looks to him like Republicans were recruiting candidates for the Democratic race, and noted that he’d tried to talk to Goocher, but never was able to.

“It’s all very suspicious,” Dostal said, “but it points to one conclusion. It’s all moving in one direction: that (Goocher) was put up to it by somebody.”

Dostal won 72 percent in the Democratic primary and then dropped out. The local Democratic Party didn’t replace him on the ballot. Local Democratic officials, though, say they’re not backing any candidate, since there’s no Democrat in the race.

“We’re not supporting anybody,” said Roz Odell, chair of the Citrus County Democratic Executive Committee. “We’re trying to get our local officials and President Obama elected. We have no dog in the race in 34.”

Odell also said she knows of no attempts to recruit a ringer in her party’s primary.

Argenziano claims her campaign has gotten a boost from the controversy. After the Chronicle revealed Smith’s nomination of the elder Goocher for the hospital board, she said, she got 500 requests for yard signs.

Still, Argenziano faces a huge financial disadvantage. As of Aug. 9, the latest figures available, Smith had raised $100,722, while Argenziano had raised $5,395.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.