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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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FBI Can’t Withhold Files on Florida Bribe Inquiry

(CN) - The FBI lost another bid to put a lid on its inquiry into an alleged scheme to bribe Florida politician James Jett.

A federal judge rejected the FBI's motion to halt further public disclosure of secret recordings and other materials from the bribery investigation, in which Jett served as a key informant.

Affirming a prior ruling, the judge ordered the FBI to comply with Jett's Freedom of Information Act request for access to pertinent case files.

The court ruled that public interest in the matter outweighed the FBI's privacy concerns for the accused bribers, none of whom were criminally charged.

Jett, a former Clay County clerk of court and county commissioner, sparked the investigation when he alleged that his opponent in a 2012 congressional primary Cliff Stearns sent two middlemen to bribe him into surrendering his candidacy.

In exchange for giving up his Republican primary run against Stearns, Jett was offered VIP tickets to the Republican National Convention, cash for past campaign costs and a coveted appointment to director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Jett claimed.

Jett reported the activity to the FBI, and investigators tapped Jett's phone, with his consent, in order to record conversations between him and the intermediaries who were supposedly offering the bribes, FBI internal documents show.

Concerned that the initial recordings did not prove the element of coercion, the FBI asked Jett to continue with the phone-taped conversations, but Jett abruptly spilled the beans about the investigation to Stearns, destroying the bureau's hopes of building a case, the FBI documents show.

Jett claimed in subsequent public statements that the deal to ease him out of the race was to be finalized at a March 2012 gathering of high-level Florida Republicans, and that he was ready to go to the meeting wearing a hidden recording device. He claimed however that the FBI balked because then-House Speaker John Boehner was expected to be present, and the FBI home office had not given permission to record Boehner.

The FBI's case was terminated with no charges filed against Stearns or his two supposed intermediaries, named as Jud Sapp and Jim Horne in Jett's court documents.

Stearns, a longtime North Florida congressman, all along maintained the scandal was concocted by Jett. His spokesman issued a statement calling Jett's allegations "a political maneuver . . . to illegally entrap former friends for vindictive reasons."

According to the spokesman, Jett's accusations arose "from his own solicitations" for "compensation to remove himself as a candidate" once he discovered Stearns would be running against him in District 3.

Jett stayed in the race and received less than 15 percent of the Republican primary vote. Both he and Stearns lost out to Ted Yoho and failed to secure the congressional nomination.

Jett later professed that he wanted to defend his reputation by proving his bribery claims were well-founded in spite of the lack of an indictment.

He demanded access to the FBI's case files through a Freedom of Information Act request, and although the FBI complied in part, it did not execute a search of its Electronic Surveillance Data Management System (the database that includes voice recordings) as per Jett's request. Citing concerns for the privacy of the accused, the bureau also refused to query the FBI Central Records System using the names of Stearns' alleged middlemen.

Jett proceeded to sue in D.C. district court for better access, and he prevailed.

The court ordered last September that the FBI provide the records in accordance with Jett's wishes.

The FBI submitted a motion for reconsideration, arguing that further public disclosure of the case files would be unwarranted because the politicians involved were not prominent enough to generate a "cognizable public interest" that would offset the privacy concerns.

Without budging, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta on Jan. 8 concluded that the FBI's new arguments "do not carry the day."

"Here, the public unquestionably has a substantial interest in learning how federal law enforcement personnel handled the criminal investigation of a sitting Congressman-even if not a high-ranking Member," the judge wrote.

The decision hinged largely on the balancing of public-private interests outlined in the court's prior decision from a Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics complaint against the Department of Justice. That case involved the DOJ's comparable citation of privacy issues when refusing an FOIA request for documents from a corruption investigation into Senator Tom DeLay.

In the latest decision in Jett's action, Judge Mehta stressed that the FBI would be within its rights to apply appropriate redactions or data-exemptions if the expanded database searches turn up previously undisclosed records.

The judge gave the FBI a Feb. 7 deadline to show compliance with the court's order.

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