Remember way back in July, when Rep. Seth McKeel and state Sen. Kelli Stargel were so horrified by the doings at LPD that they wrote and signed a letter to Mayor Gow Fields expressing the outrage of the Polk Legislative delegation?
Seth and Kelli are chair and vice chair of the Polk delegation. So they were the only two full signatures on the letter, which opened like this:
We find the State Attorney’s report on the behavior of the LPD officials to be shocking, revolting, and a clear cause for action. A culture which at best lacks professionalism and at worst encourages the reckless behavior of LPD officials, is apparently pervasive and is an embarrassment to our community. The culture has unfortunately eroded the public’s confidence in the Lakeland Police Department.
Fortunately, Polk County’s Chief Law Enforcement Officer is one of the finest law enforcement officers in Florida. Our recommendation is to invite Polk Sheriff Grady Judd to work with city officials to make the proper reforms to the Lakeland Police Department. We have discussed this concept with the Sheriff and he is willing to help, if asked.
Now, let’s fast forward to the McKeel scandal, with an eye toward Seth McKeel, John and Kelli Stargel, and Grady Judd.
To recap what we know: McKeel, under the auspices of at least its board chairman Taylor Caffey, commissioned a report about the behavior of McKeel superintendent Harold Maready. It specifically related to the McKeel junior/senior high school, called McKeel Academy of Technology.
That report described an array of appalling, bullying behavior by Maready. And more specifically, it described two incidences of criminal behavior. Maready admitted to one, tapping a subordinate in his penis or testicles against his will with enough impact to cause him to double over. That behavior is at least misdemeanor battery, whether the victim decides to press charges or not.
The other involves accounts of Maready coercing campaign contributions for Kelli Stargel from administrators. It cites multiple unnamed sources. The report says Maready had his executive assistant remind the administrators to cough up the money. As Glenn Marston and the The Ledger pointed out, Florida Statutes 104.31 identifies such coercion by a public official as a first degree misdemeanor. That allegation appears on page 13 in a portion of the McKeel report labeled “substantiated.”
We also know that Seth McKeel and Circuit John Stargel, Kelli Stargel’s husband, serve together on the McKeel board. They met with the remainder of the McKeel board last week to discuss the report. According to the Ledger’s account, they took no action. They did not mention the coerced campaign contributions. And their biggest concern appeared to be that the public learned of this investigation at all, even though Harold Maready is paid a lot of taxpayer money.
And then yesterday, they met again and were contemplating spending more taxpayer money–up to $13,500–for an HR coach to teach Maready not be a bully when Maready’s lawyer announced his client was quitting.
Let me go through that again: John Stargel, a circuit judge, ignored a specific report of a crime committed on behalf of his wife that’s contained within an investigation his own organization commissioned. Fellow board member Seth McKeel sat there and watched and complained about how the report got commissioned, sounding very much like the LPD apologists.
Let me say it one more time. In italics. John Stargel, a circuit judge, ignored a report of a crime committed on behalf of his wife that’s contained within an investigation his own organization commissioned.
And the McKeel board response was to spend more of your money to “coach” Harold Maready.
(Unfortunately, although it’s been a week since the report became public, Mary Toothman still hasn’t bothered to quote the campaign contribution portion of the report. Nor has she asked a single question about it. Thank goodness the editorial page is on the ball, but Lenore and Lyle and Lynne, what on earth are you doing?)
Now, there is no indication whatsoever that Kelli or John Stargel asked Maready to do what the report relates concerning the contributions. They probably had no knowledge. But once the report exists, and John Stargel gathers as part of the McKeel board to discuss it, a number of questions arise.
Did Judge John Stargel actually read the report? If so, why did he ignore the coerced contributions? Is it possible that Judge John Stargel, a former state legislator and political operative himself, does not know about Florida Statute 104.31? Why has Judge John Stargel not recused himself from any discussion of the McKeel report? What guidance would the judicial canon of ethics provide for this situation?
And let’s consider Sheriff Grady Judd, the most political of sheriffs. Polk County’s daddy. He stood up in front of any camera he could find just a few weeks ago to talk about the horrors of bullying and how they aren’t tolerated here in Polk County.
What is he going to do about this?
Coerced campaign contributions are among the worst forms of bullying–forcing someone to cough up their hard-earned money to the benefit of someone else’s power. It is the raw exercise of power by one person over another. Bullying. And it’s against the law. Harold Maready resigning in a puddle of disgrace doesn’t change that an inch.
And imagine that the principal of a traditional low income public school was accused by a staff member of smoking marijuana–also a misdemeanor–to ease chronic back pain. How long do you think it would take the sheriff’s boys to knock down his or her door and parade him or her in front of TV cameras?
Sheriff, you sent undercover deputies to infiltrate a peaceful group protesting the Trayvon Martin verdict at a public education institution. What are you going to about a credible accusation of a crime of political bullying in a public school-commissioned report written by a professional investigator?
I look at the board members of that school system–which include your powerful political allies and groupies–and I think I see my answer. I think you’re going to do nothing.
You are what your record says you are. And it says you only target the politically weak. Annoying atheists? On ‘em with the SWAT team. Problematic juveniles? Pepper-spray ‘em into obedience. An unchecked abusive bullying culture among leaders of a prominent institution for children? Peppered with credible accusations of crime? With prominent Republican officeholders on or tied to the board? Not the right kind of people for the Grady treatment, I suspect.
But you know what? Prove me wrong. If it turns out you’re not who I think you are, I’ll happily eat crow right here.
And finally, Seth, I’d like to ask you to write a letter from the Polk delegation to McKeel Board chairman Mark Thompson similar the one you wrote to Gow. What are the chances of that happening?
Pause for a chuckle.
Anyway, if we had a Polk delegation chair whose name wasn’t on this blood-sucking, taxpayer-funded school system, or who could see past his personal conflicts to the well-being of constituents and taxpayers, he might write something like this:
“Dear Mr. Thompson:
“You and I have failed miserably in our duty to oversee this taxpayer-funded institution. We should resign and allow new leadership to take the reins.
“Under our watch, our superintendent ignored our guidance in 2011 to change his behavior. This has led to a highly embarrassing investigative report that strongly suggests criminal actions as well as appalling leadership and abusive language and management practices. We allowed a bully to run our school for years. I can think of no other government institution that would tolerate such behavior in its leader. Even the city of Lakeland did not tolerate similar, but less long-standing behavior, from its HR director. In addition to that, the McKeel schools are the only three charter schools in Polk County identified as having “material weaknesses in internal controls” related to our financial statements. We’re supposed to be business-friendly and STEM-savvy. How could that happen?
“It’s all happened because we’ve demanded no accountability from Harold Maready, or from ourselves, which sets a terrible example for the kids we serve. And frankly, our high school received a B rating this year despite our tailored student enrollment designed to keep low scoring kids out. So it’s not clear to me any more what we’re even getting for our cravenness. We are the problem.”
Again, that’s a fantasy statement, of course. In the real world, important bullies don’t even get lectures. They just get HR coaches paid for by your money and mine.