Sleaze, slime and slander: Southwest Florida’s summer in the swamp

06-29-20 Fig and Hurley NBC2

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.

06-29-20 Roger Stone endorsement YouTube
Roger Stone endorses JoAnn Debartolo.  (Image: YouTube)

(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

07-01-20 FEC logoIn 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.

Heather’s horror

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.

06-29-20 Pelosi morph 1

06-29-20 Pelosi morph 2

06-29-20 Pelosi morph 3The 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?”

06-29-20 Rachel BrownDemocrats 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

07-01-20 Joseph_McCarthy
Sen. Joseph McCarthy

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.

06-11-20 Darren Aquino
Darren Aquino  (Image: WINK News)

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


Commentary: Outrageous words and the mini-Trumps of Southwest Florida

Trump addresses rally regarding Everglades cropped 10-23-16Donald Trump addresses a rally at the Collier County Fairgrounds, Oct. 23, 2016.   (Photo: Author)

June 12, 2020 by David Silverberg

Updated at 11:15 am with additional details.

When Seed to Table owner Alfie Oakes issued his now notorious 758-word screed on Facebook on Monday, June 8, it was remarkable how much he used familiar language, characterizing both COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter as “a hoax.”

Of course it is President Donald Trump who is infamous for labeling virtually anything he doesn’t like as a “hoax,” whether it’s an investigation into his Russian ties or coronavirus.

But Oakes’ use of Trumpist language was hardly unique. In fact, Trump’s usages are leaching down into Southwest Florida’s political language among those who are his greatest devotees.

But it’s not just Trump’s language that’s infecting Southwest Florida’s discourse, it’s also his behavior. His insults, his personalized attacks and his overall “hatred, prejudice and rage”—to use his own words—against people of different races, ethnicities and national origins as well as his political opponents is being aped by his admirers.

This is most pronounced in the crowded field of 10 Republicans jostling to replace Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.).

Where once politicians attempted to keep their campaign attacks impersonal as “just business” and focus on policy differences and their public records, Donald Trump upended that in 2016. He bulldozed his way into the presidency by making everything personal, using insults as a strategic weapon to beat down opponents and avoiding any rational discussion of substance.

Those traits have now reached Southwest Florida and the evidence is stark in the candidates’ campaign pronouncements as expressed on Twitter, also Trump’s favorite means of expression.

(In this posting I’ve helpfully highlighted the language that echoes the president’s usages. To check on all of Trump’s words as expressed in his tweets, nothing beats the searchable

Mini-Trumps for Congress

06-11-20 Darren Aquino
Darren Aquino

In the 19th Congressional District, Darren Aquino, a New York actor of Puerto Rican and Italian extraction who is polling surprisingly high despite his bare-bones, all-online campaign, has been combatively Trump-like in attacking Democrat Cindy Banyai as a “socialist”–but he reserves his real ire for fellow Republicans.

Like Trump, he’s aggressively anti-immigrant: “Many so called ‘refugees’ are really economic migrants looking to replace American workers,” he tweeted on June 8. “Refugee programs are also the easiest way for terrorists to come into this country. We need to end the refugee program. America has been taken advantage of for far too long.”

Aquino shares Trump’s xenophobic prejudices. He’s attacked fellow Republican Casey Askar for his foreign roots: “Money doesn’t buy you charisma or respect. Kousay/Casey Askar has all the money in the world, but he’s laughed at by his peers and the people he hires. He’s low energy and robotic. We can’t have Iraqi born citizens in Congress, they need to be natural born Americans,” he tweeted on June 8.

(During his 2016 campaign Trump repeatedly referred to former Florida governor Jeb Bush as “low energy” and attacked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for not being “natural born”—to say nothing of Trump’s attacks on President Barack Obama’s origins. However, what he really meant was “native born”–unless they were conceived in a test tube, all the candidates are “natural born.” It’s a distinction Trump has never absorbed.)

Aquino’s spite also extends to a sitting member of Congress: “I’m going to put forth legislation requiring all Congressmen be natural born citizens. This would remove Ilhan Omar from office, because she was born in Somalia,” he tweeted on June 10, adding for good measure in a comment: “We want a natural born American to beat Omar, not an Iraqi.” [Editor’s note: Changing the terms of congressional service would require a constitutional amendment.]

Like Trump, Aquino is trying to use religion to get elected as in this June 9 tweet: “America is GREAT because the men who created it were DEVOUT CHRISTIANS! WE NEED THAT SPIRIT AGAIN!”

06-02-20 Fig in wall ad
William Figlesthaler

Dr. William Figlesthaler has also thrown insults at his opponents. “Honestly, I am glad Shady Mayor Randy @HendersonForFL is running for Congress. At least it puts him out of office for good. Fort Myers needs a real leader. Someone who won’t allow the city to be run by gangsters and drug dealers,” he tweeted on Feb. 12.

He certainly has no respect for opponent State Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Fla.): “@DaneEagle has never run a real race in his life. He has no clue what he is up against. @TerryMillerFL won’t be able to protect him this time. I will expose them both for the self-serving #NeverTrump RINOS they are,” he tweeted on Feb. 1.

The same day he added: “@DaneEagle is funded entirely by special interest that pay him to do his bidding. He is spineless and will sell himself out every time. My campaign and our base of real community leaders are going to match him dollar for dollar. I won’t let a sellout buy this seat.”

06-11-20 Dane Eagle
Dane Eagle

But Dane Eagle is no slouch in the Trump-like insult department: “The low IQ commentators at CNN just fired up the Republican base like never before,” he tweeted on Jan. 28 after a report that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had insulted a CNN reporter.

Nor is he free from Trump-like blaming. On May 14 he tweeted, “President Trump did not try to cover-up the virus. China did. Trump did not lie about human-to-human transmission. China did. Trump did not throw doctors in jail. China did. Instead of launching another witch hunt against @realDonaldTrump, let’s hold China accountable!”

Like Trump, Eagle shares the president’s solicitation for Michael Flynn, the disgraced and convicted former national security advisor: “All charges against General Michael Flynn should be dropped IMMEDIATELY! He was set up by deep state, treasonous actors. Everyone involved in this set up should be arrested and have the book thrown at them for what they did to this honorable man!” he tweeted on April 29.

The other seven Republican candidates either don’t have identifiable Twitter accounts or use Twitter to a far lesser extent. Their tweets are much more conventional and not as Trumpish as Aquino’s, Figlesthaler’s and Eagle’s. In their substance, however, all highlight their allegiance and obedience to Donald Trump and all he represents.

Byron Donalds and Antonio Dumornay

06-05-20 Byron Donalds
Byron Donalds

When it came to reacting to George Floyd’s killing and the resulting protests, two African American congressional candidates were faced with unique challenges and reacted in different ways. Ironically, both had been arrested in the past, giving them an intimate view of law enforcement.

State Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee) is a proudly Trumper Republican. His response was to tweet out a thoughtful, 2-minute, 7-second video statement on May 31.

“I want justice for George Floyd, but we can’t burn down our cities and small businesses—many black owned,” he said. “We can’t target our police officers, many of which are good. We must come together as a country to better our communities, not let anger push us towards anarchy. We’ve got to stop, America. We have to come together.”

06-05-20 Antonio Dumornay
Antonio Dumornay

Antonio Dumornay started his campaign as a Republican and then switched to Independent.  His June 2 video statement, titled “Accountability! It’s not rocket science,” was succinct and to the point: “The justice system must hold everyone accountable when they commit a crime, that’s what these protests are all about. When you hold everyone accountable, the race question seems to eliminate itself.”

He followed that up with another tweet on June 7, stating: “For the first time I am watching minorities react to the George Floyd BLM protests! People getting fired for their prejudice remarks and businesses still remain slow because owners don’t know how to SHUT THE HELL UP.” He included a sarcastic emoji and the line:  “did you just catch what I said! I like 2020.”

A reference to Alfie Oakes, perhaps?

When words matter

Political passions can be dangerous, as generations of Americans have learned.

Political differences have generated a civil war, riots, massacres and bombings. Among lawmakers and officials they’ve stoked duels, a beating on the floor of the Senate and shortly after independence a fight between two congressmen battling with a walking stick and a pair of fireplace tongs. (Interestingly, the fight had to do with the very first impeachment—of a senator—and, of course, involved Florida, then a colony of Spain.)

Throughout political life—and even in personal interactions—the civilized effort over time has been to reduce friction and respect everyone’s dignity. A large part of that effort has been to use language carefully—and those in public life know they have to be particularly careful in their speech.

It’s beyond obvious to say that Donald Trump isn’t part of this effort. He uses words to “totally dominate” everyone around him and the nation, whether verbally or on Twitter—and now his devotees are following his lead.

This is partially why there have been two gigantic waves of protest and reform during the three years of the Trump administration.

The first was the Women’s March and the “Me Too” movement. The second is the George Floyd protest and the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Both were and are uprisings of broad swaths of people who have been insulted, marginalized and dismissed by Donald Trump. It’s part of his ongoing, relentless verbal (and political) effort to diminish everyone but himself.

A great many people aren’t taking this abuse lying down. They’re rising up.

We’ll see if that outrage translates into retaliation in the voting booth. Donald Trump may pay a big price for his words and behavior in November. Around the nation and in Southwest Florida his mini-Trumps may pay their own prices sooner than that.

Whichever way things go, there’s no doubt about the ultimate lesson: lives and words matter.

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg







Poll shows Aquino-Askar Republican congressional primary race; undecideds hold the key — UPDATED

06-01-20 Republican field CD19Breakdown of the findings of the first open poll of the Republican primary race in Southwest Florida.

June 2, 2020 by David Silverberg.

Updated at 3:45 pm with additional data

A poll by an independent polling firm, Political Prowess Polling, has Republican congressional candidate Casey Askar polling equally with former actor Darren Aquino in the 19th Congressional District Republican primary race.

However, the real prize that will determine the winner of the Aug. 18 Republican primary will be winning over the 27 percent of undecided voters it found.

Key findings, according to the poll’s executive summary:

 Undecideds are leading the way.

 Recent events have skyrocketed Aquino & Askar.

 Some analysts are predicting [State Rep. Dane] Eagle [R-77-Cape Coral] to rise to the top of the polls.

 Under 30% of voters chose any of the four sitting politicians in the race.

 Indecisive voters could make the difference for Darren Aquino or Casey Askar.

The poll was first reported in part today by The Paradise Progressive in the article “SWFL State of Play Today.” Subsequent to the posting of that report, Aaron Montgomery, the firm’s strategic polling coordinator, contacted The Paradise Progressive with new details.

The poll was conducted by robocall on May 27 and 28 among 800 registered Republicans likely to vote in the primary. It has a margin of error of 3.2 percent.

It was not conducted on behalf of any candidate but rather was part of the firm’s 2020 Republican Primary Research Set, an independent series of studies on Republican primaries across the country, according to Montgomery.

Liberty lives in light

©2020 by David Silverberg




Actor files for 19th Congressional District Republican primary race

Dec. 20, 2019 by David Silverberg

12-20-19 Darren Aquino cropped
Darren Aquino

Yet another Republican candidate has filed to fill Florida’s 19th Congressional District seat being vacated by Rep. Francis Rooney.

Darren Dionne Aquino, a resident of Naples, formerly of New York, filed his candidacy with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday, Dec. 17.

Aquino’s filing brings to 10 the number of candidates running for the seat: seven Republicans, two Democrats and one Independent.

In a single, unpunctuated, 228-word run-on sentence on his Facebook page, Aquino states that he’s running “to make a difference for the American people we all sit by and watch our elected officials do more self-serving than they do constituent serving…” [sic].

Aquino declared his candidacy for mayor of New York City in 2017 but did not file for the Republican primary election. He has been an advocate for veterans and the disabled. He played a disabled police officer on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” a mobster on “The Sopranos” and mayor of New York in the 2017 movie, The Streetz.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg