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America First group sued by Sarasota Republican club for ‘civil theft’

A dispute over control of the second-largest Republican club in Sarasota County has moved to court after the Republican Club of South Sarasota County sued four of its former members and officers, claiming they stole club funds and property when they split earlier this year. year to form a new group: the America First Southwest Florida Caucus.

The Herald-Tribune reported in January that after more than 25 years as one of the most influential groups in Sarasota County politics, the RCSSC has resigned its charter with the state GOP and changed its name to the America First SWFL Caucus. But a lawsuit filed April 12 in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court by the Republican Club of South Sarasota County alleges that the new organization’s founders did not have the authority to terminate the RCSSC’s charter and seeks $63,000 in damages.

It is alleged that the defendants stole more than $10,000 from the RCSSC bank account – money that, under state GOP rules, must be turned over to the Republican Party by a group’s last officials within 90 days of inactivity Florida as “an entity chartered under this Act The rule shall become inactive, the charter shall be revoked, or the charter shall not be renewed.”

The lawsuit also alleges that the defendants stole property such as tables and chairs, financial records, projection equipment, checkbooks and the coffee pot.

The rules specify that any inactive entity may not spend money without state approval, the lawsuit states.

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“Under the Rules of Procedure of the Republican Party of Florida, even if the RCSSC had become inactive, revoked its charter, or failed to renew its charter, Defendants would never have the right to reuse or transfer the funds,” said the lawsuit.

The case has been assigned to Judge Hunter W. Carroll.

According to court documents, the suspects have not yet contacted an attorney.

Dispute over the assets of the Republican Club of South Sarasota County

Terri Angley, the Republican state committeewoman for Sarasota County and the vice president of the America First SWFL Caucus, is named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. Angley said the RCSSC changed its name and revoked its charter because the board voted overwhelmingly to do so rather than follow a new set of policy changes from the state party.

“The members felt the contract had been changed because of the new rules,” Angley said. “We sent the charter back with a cover letter and said, ‘The members said we couldn’t comply.’ Then we said, ‘Well, this is what we can do: we can create a new, new club.'”

Angley disputed the lawsuit’s claim that more than $10,000 in civil theft was committed. That money, she said, came from then-RCSSC members. Since most of them have moved on to join the new group, Angley said that money should stay with them and be used by the new organization.

The committeewoman had been involved with the RCSSC for 18 years, most of it on the board, but she said the state party’s new mandates were too heavy for members to bear. Angley said they were told that each chartered group had to provide the Republican Party of Florida and their local Republican Executive Committee with personal information about their members — such as names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

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Angley said RCSSC members were “going crazy” at the idea of ​​their personal information being shared.

Some relatively new club officials and board members also began to question why they were not allowed to endorse candidates in the primaries, which influenced the decision to form a new group.

“There were people who probably wanted to do this anyway, that’s how I see it,” Angley said.

Although not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, Mike Stephenson was president of the RCSSC at the time of the transition to the America First SWFL Caucus, and he said he oversaw the entire process.

Stephenson said the split was the result of those policy changes in the Republican Party of Florida and problems with Sarasota GOP Chairman Jack Brill.

A spokesperson for the Republican Party of Sarasota said Brill would not comment on pending litigation.

In letters to each defendant dated March 1, RCSSC legal counsel Morgan Bentley of the Sarasota-based law firm Bentley Goodrich Kison characterized the breakaway group as “disgruntled, now former members” who “engaged in deliberate, criminal, and malicious theft” by taking club property, documents, domain names, email and social media accounts.

“The unlawful theft and retention of the above property constitutes civil larceny in Florida. As a result of this theft, the Club has suffered actual damages estimated at at least $21,000.00,” Bentley wrote.

Bentley cited Florida’s civil larceny statute to say that since the RCSSC still exists and is chartered by the Republican Party, the former leadership could not take the club’s property with them when they left to create a new, -establish a chartered organization.

“Nobody says they don’t have the right to start their own club. God bless them and good luck to them, but that doesn’t mean it’s the Republican-chartered club of South Sarasota County,” Bentley told the Herald-Tribune.

The attorney estimated that two-thirds of the original members of the RCSCC did not follow the leadership to start the America First SWFL Caucus, and they were dismayed to find their club’s bank account empty and their coffee pot missing.

Bentley said there is a formal, legal process that the leadership of the America First SWFL Caucus could have used to avoid violations of the GOP’s Civil Theft Statute and state statutes. It would require the entire club to agree to form a new organization or the charter to expire. If the RCSCC exists, even on paper, it is a chartered organization with its own resources and property.

Bentley rejected Angley’s claim that he owned the club’s assets.

“If their position is that every dollar in that bank account comes from the members who left, I doubt that’s the case,” Bentley said. “But even if it were true, it still doesn’t matter. It is the money they gave the club to operate, and it is still there: running and holding monthly meetings.”

James Hoel, the president of the America First SWFL Caucus, is also listed as a co-defendant.

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Hoel, who was featured in a joint documentary investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” investigation into President Donald Donald’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, was present at the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol as member of the Proud Boys. but said he did not enter the Capitol. He has since become a prominent participant in Sarasota County politics, including his support of the Republican campaign that won three seats on the Sarasota County School Board in 2022.

For Hoel, the lawsuit is not simply a semantic argument about assets and a charter, but rather what he believes was aimed at an ideological divide by the state’s Republican apparatus.

“We want America First to be at the forefront for the benefit of American citizens. All American citizens, regardless of race, color or creed; we don’t look at that,” Hoel told the Herald-Tribune. “We believe in self-government, and the (Republican Party of Florida) obviously doesn’t, because we simply said, ‘We don’t agree with the charter changes you’re making and we’ve decided to move forward on our own.’ ”

Hoel called the lawsuit “an example of what happens when you stray from the establishment.”

The chairman of the America First SWFL Caucus also refuted Bentley’s claim that two-thirds of the club were left behind – a figure he said was closer to just one individual. For Hoel, his message to the Florida Republican Party that the RCSCC planned to dissolve its charter in response to new policies was enough to break away and take their assets with them.

He pointed to a rule in the GOP’s previous state statutes that said if a club charter is revoked or not renewed, the Republican Party of Florida “has no jurisdiction over the club, its funds, activities or members.”

In a March 18 letter, George Riley, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, wrote to Hoel that the RCSSC’s charter will remain in effect until at least March 31, 2025, in accordance with the state’s rules of procedure.

In response to Riley, Hoel said the RCSCC board of directors planned to resign from the charter effective immediately.

“We have also informed you that all previous ties, allegiances and agreements were thereby permanently severed and that any possible future correspondence regarding this withdrawal was undesirable,” Hoel wrote. “We have informed you that going forward, our organization will focus our priorities and support on other initiatives that put our American citizens first and most importantly. The application for your organization to become a chartered Republican club is voluntary, as is the reverse.”

As an independent group, the America First SWFL Caucus can now produce voter guides, take positions outside the official GOP umbrella, and endorse and directly endorse candidates in Republican primaries.