Friday, June 13, 2008
Manuel target of FBI inquiry
Manuel target of FBI inquiry
By PETER GUINTA
Publication Date: 06/13/08
St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar said Thursday that County Commission Chairman Tom Manuel has been the target of a year-long FBI corruption investigation, but Manuel called the allegation "a political hatchet job."
The FBI rarely comments about ongoing investigations, but Shoar said Manuel could be indicted by a Jacksonville grand jury in two to six weeks.
Manuel replied, "That is absolutely untrue. I've not been questioned or arrested. It's political slander. The sheriff's a liar."
However, Special Agent Jeff Westcott of the FBI's Jacksonville office said, "There is an ongoing FBI investigation of Mr. Manuel. There may be more people to be interviewed."
Manuel said he knew of no investigation into his public or private business and has not hired an attorney.
"It's a bunch of crap," Manuel said. "I'm home trying to take my kids to soccer."
Westcott said Manuel knows of the investigation.
Shoar said an investigation is a process, not a conclusion.
"The community needs to let this investigation continue," Shoar said. "I have full confidence that the FBI is conducting a thorough one."
Manuel believes political opponents are unhappy with his efforts to drastically trim the county budget and with investigations he initiated into how the county spends money.
"I've saved the county more money than any commissioner," he said. "This (accusation) comes from my enemies."
Shoar said he'd release details of the investigation only if an indictment is handed down.
"There has been an ongoing investigation by the FBI's public corruption unit," Shoar said. "It is my understanding that they're going to take evidence to a federal grand jury in the future, so the grand jury can have the opportunity to review that evidence and make a determination."
Over the past few months, Manuel received both high praise and strong criticism over his suggestion that the St. Augustine Airport Authority and the Anastasia Mosquito Control District could be incorporated into the county's administration, which would save hundreds of thousands of tax dollars a year.
He is also a strong supporter of limited growth in St. Johns County, a position that Jacksonville developers and builders wanted to change.
County Manager Michael Wanchick briefed the four other county commissioners Thursday.
"There is an active criminal investigation centered around Tom Manuel," Wanchick said. "Because it's an active federal investigation, we have to be careful. I'm not in the position to provide any additional details at this time."
Manuel pointed out that Wanchick had been briefed only by Shoar, not by FBI agents.
Commission Vice Chair Cyndi Stevenson of District 1 said she was saddened at hearing the news.
"This can't be good for the county," Stevenson said. "I have none of the data, no hard facts. But we're all innocent until proven guilty."
District 3 Commissioner Ben Rich, a retired federal agent, said if there's no arrest, there's no case.
"No one will be prosecuted for something they have not been arrested for," Rich said. "This is just rumor, character assassination and innuendo."
Manuel's last public appearance was Wednesday morning at a dedication ceremony renaming a county road "Sgt. Tutten Drive" in honor of Sgt. Bryan Tutten of St. Augustine, killed in Iraq in 2007.
Manuel, a retired businessman and banker, refused during his election in 2006 to accept campaign checks from corporations or developers.
In this first try at public office, Manuel won the Republican primary over incumbent Bruce Maguire, then garnered 95.9 percent of the vote against write-in candidate Richard Olszewski of St. Augustine Beach.
Olszewski did not raise more than $100 and did not campaign.
When Manuel was sworn in on Nov. 21, 2006, he said, "The core underlying tenor (of this commission) is that we will listen. The road (the new commissioners) took to get here is diverse as it could be. But we all have a moral compass, and we know the difference between right and wrong."
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