Dr. William Figlesthaler and Matthew Hurley in happier times. (Image: NBC2)
July 2, 2020 by David Silverberg
If you’ve been preoccupied with the resurgence of coronavirus in Florida, the breakdown of the state unemployment system, protests and reactions and the general collapse of civilization, you could be forgiven for overlooking the schemes and scandals of Southwest Florida’s local politics, of which there has been a bumper crop.
So here, for those who might have missed them and would like to catch up, is a roundup of some of the seamier stories that have burst on the airwaves and Internets this summer.
Figlesthaler’s news—fake and otherwise
This one belongs to political reporter Dave Elias of NBC2, who has been peeling back layers of denial and obfuscation toward something that may be much bigger and badder than first reported.
On June 22, Elias reported that Matthew Hurley, a campaign staffer with Dr. William Figlesthaler, a Republican congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District, had been arrested for contempt of court charges in a business contract dispute unrelated to the campaign.
Figlesthaler denied that Hurley had been with the campaign. (“Local Congressional candidate denies affiliation with arrested man, despite contrary evidence.”) Hurley is also a partner in a political consulting firm—owned by his girlfriend, Rachel Schaff—called Southeastern Strategies that was hired by Figlesthaler (as confirmed by Federal Election Commission (FEC) financial reports).
Figlesthaler didn’t just deny that Hurley was with his campaign, he went all-Trump on Elias and the story. In a statement, he claimed to be “the overwhelming front runners (sic) in the race” (absolutely not true), accused NBC2 of being “fake news media [that] utilized lies and distortions to attack our campaign and promote their anti-Conservative, anti-Trump, anti-America message,” (that honor belongs only to The Paradise Progressive) and accused Elias of being “a long-time liberal activist, open borders proponent, and self-proclaimed Never Trumper” who attacks “real America First Conservatives” (totally untrue).
But the real essence of Figlesthaler’s attack and the person against whom he leveled real accusations was one of Elias’ on-air sources, a woman named JoAnn Debartolo.
“Elias’ only so-called ‘source’ in his hit piece was well known political extortionist JoAnn Debartolo,” Figlesthaler stated. “JoAnn has for years preyed on independently wealthy individuals to pay her personal bills and mortgage. In March of 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, JoAnn attempted to extort my campaign for more than $50,000 in cash. When I refused to pay her, she quickly aligned with one of my deep-pocketed opponents in an attempt to spread lies about our campaign.”
Debartolo is a long-time Collier County Republican activist who was approached to join Figlesthaler’s campaign and turned him down—and provided Elias with the proposed contract to prove it.
(Debartolo is on this year’s Republican Party primary ballot for the position of state committeewoman. On June 20, Roger Stone—yes, that Roger Stone—endorsed Debartalo as a “conservative Trump supporter” over her opponent in a 41-second YouTube video.)
Elias followed up his first story the next day, June 23, with one that provided even more evidence of Hurley’s relationship to the campaign: “Congressional candidate claims coverage of campaign member is ‘fake news’ despite piles of evidence.”
The story featured statements by competing Republican candidates Darren Aquino, Christy McLaughlin, Casey Askar and state Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral) attesting that they were all approached by Hurley on behalf of Figlesthaler’s campaign—either in Hurley’s capacity as a campaign worker or in an effort to get them to drop out (Aquino).
Elias’ report also revealed that: “Lawsuits show Hurley owes thousands of dollars in civil lawsuits and has not paid them. A judge has ordered them paid and an arrest document lists Figlesthaler’s campaign as a possible employer to garnish wages.”
As of this writing, there have been no further reports by Elias on the Figlesthaler-Hurley relationship. However, Elias had solid evidence for all his reporting and his work to date seems to hint at something deeper.
At the very least, Figlesthaler’s Trump-like reactions of blame, denial and accusation to the stories indicate the kind of congressman he would be if elected to represent Southwest Florida in the House of Representatives—and he’s running on a “drain the swamp” platform, no less.
Much more is likely to come on this story. Stay tuned!
The origins of Askar’s millions
In the 19th Congressional District race, businessman Casey Askar rocketed to the front of the Republican pack on the strength of a $3 million personal loan to his campaign.
But now it appears that $3 million may not have come out of his own pocket.
In a June 9 article, “Complaint alleges Casey Askar bankrolled with improper loan,” in Florida Politics, reporter Jacob Ogles detailed a FEC complaint alleging that Askar’s $3 million was actually a sweetheart, interest-free loan from Northern Bank and Trust.
The complaint was filed by Stan Carter, a conservative activist in St. James City (on the southern tip of Pine Island, in the 19th Congressional District). Carter told the FEC that the loan “reeks of fraud to the highest degree.”
While ostensibly a business loan made to several individuals, Carter suggested that it was really a personal loan by the bank’s president to Askar.
Kristin Davison, a consultant with the Askar campaign, told Ogles that the loan came from a line of credit Askar had through Northern Trust for years. Money was drawn from the account before Askar filed for Congress and he then loaned it to the campaign.
“The bank didn’t loan money to the campaign,” she said. “Casey has a line of credit. Those are his personal funds.”
The fact that the original business loan was made to several individuals meant that the money was not Askar’s alone to lend to his campaign, thus violating campaign finance rules, according to Carter.
“Of course, banks are conscious of the stringent regulations surrounding campaign finance, and they would be all the more conscious of those regulations when lending a figure as large as $3,000,000,” Carter wrote. “However, Northern Bank & Trust Company blatantly ignored these regulations. Why? Because Kousay ‘Casey’ Askar conspired with the President & CEO of Northern Bank & Trust Company, James Mawn, to receive the fraudulent loan.”
As Ogles put it in his article: “The FEC complaint itself focuses on Askar’s loan, suggesting a bank with no personal ties to Askar would never grant such a low-risk deal to a first-time political candidate and saying the way the money was directed into the campaign account was unlawful.”
Northern Bank & Trust did not return Ogles’ calls before the article’s publication.
In response to a question from The Paradise Progressive, a FEC official confirmed that the complaint had been received at the federal agency but FEC rules prohibited her from providing further details of the proceeding.
Carter’s complaint did highlight something that is now being used against Askar by his Republican opponents: his Iraqi immigrant origins and the fact that his birth name was Qusay (قصي or Kousay, as his critics prefer to spell it). Askar seems to be hitting back with a new video ad that again focuses on his faith and immigrant roots—and allegiance to Trump—called “Time to fight back.” It takes aim at the usual liberal targets—but also, it seems, his Republican tormentors.
No sooner had state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78-Fort Myers) abandoned her quest for the 19th Congressional District House seat and staked a claim on the state Senate seat representing the 27th District (basically, Lee County) than her opponents opened up with all guns blazing.
Her bid outraged fellow Republicans in the Florida Senate, who didn’t want her in a primary race against a fellow Republican, didn’t like her political moderation and thought she was too cozy with a powerful Democratic lawmaker.
The result was a 30-second TV ad whose female narrator intones: “Planned Parenthood’s favorite politician? Nancy Pelosi? Nope, Heather Fitzenhagen.” As this is said, Pelosi’s face morphs into Fitzenhagen’s. The ad attacks Fitzenhagen for a variety of conservative heresies like opposing Trump and being liberal but most particularly her stance on choice.
The metamorphosis of Heather Fitzenhagen, according to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. (Images: FRSCC)
Produced by Isaac Communications of Jacksonville, the ad is sponsored by the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which urges viewers to vote for Fitzenhagen’s primary opponent: State Rep. Ray Rodrigues (R-76-Sanibel, Pine Island, Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Springs). It’s also supported by state Sens. Debbie Mayfield (R-17) and Gayle Harrell, (R-83), all of whom approved it, as it says in the fine print at the end.
Whenever the ad runs on local television stations it’s paired with a 30-second pro-Rodrigues ad that touts his conservative credentials.
Despite the vitriol, an internal poll by the Fitzenhagen campaign showed her leading Rodrigues by 10 points, according to a June 22 Florida Politics article by Ogles: “Internal poll shows Heather Fitzenhagen with a double-digit lead on Ray Rodrigues.”
Of course there is a Democratic alternative to the 27th Senate District Republicans: Democrat Rachel Brown, a Naples native. And running for the seat Rodrigues is vacating is Democrat Anselm Weber. Both first-time candidates are campaigning as progressives trying to bring change to Southwest Florida.
Ogles reported on June 16 that state Sen. Gary Farmer (D-34) representing eastern Broward County, urged Brown not to run so that Democrats could vote in an open Republican primary and elect the more moderate Fitzenhagen. However, Brown refused.
“How can I tell people I’ve marched with that I changed my mind, I’m not going to run, and they should go vote for a mediocre Republican instead who’s just going to take their taxes and use it for corporate handouts?” Brown told Ogles. “And how can I take a backroom deal that represents the behavior I’m fighting to end?”
Democrats Rachel Brown and Anselm Weber. (Photo: The Daily Kos)
McCarthyism makes a comeback
In case you didn’t enjoy the first round of McCarthyism when Sen. Joe Mc
Carthy (R-Wis.) was active in the 1950s, or if you missed it entirely (like this author) you have a second chance to see it right here in Southwest Florida.
That’s because Darren Aquino, a retired actor formerly of New York and now a Republican congressional candidate, is raising the old “Communist” canard—and like McCarthy, is doing so without any basis in fact, evidence or truth.
Aquino’s far fringe campaign consists almost entirely of tweets leveling insults and spitting hate against everyone around him. He calls Casey Askar a “snake” because he’s an immigrant and not a “natural-born citizen” and Aquino wants to make immigrants ineligible to serve in Congress. He also thinks America is headed for civil war and it’s time to pick a side. He despises refugees, Democrats, and other fellow Republicans (he calls Dane Eagle a Republican in Name Only and Sen.Marco Rubio a Never-Trumper, etc.) He even wants Bubba Wallace thrown out of NASCAR. And, of course, WINK News is fake news in his eyes.
But Aquino’s “communist” attack was leveled against Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai, whom he first called a “socialist” but then decided to change into “communist” after she called for removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in downtown Fort Myers.
Aquino’s hysteria would be laughable on the face of it but on June 23 he went on to call for Florida Gulf Coast University to fire Banyai as an adjunct professor because of her views.
The attack is reminiscent of Joe McCarthy’s baseless personal smears and the professional price people paid when targeted by him and his assistant Roy Cohn. Aquino is the only SWFL candidate in any race who is attacking another candidate’s livelihood.
At the moment there’s no indication that anyone—including FGCU—is taking Aquino seriously.
Aquino’s bitter McCarthyist revival seems destined to end up in the dustbin of history. As Karl Marx once pointed out, history sometimes happens twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Liberty lives in light
© 2020 by David Silverberg