James Dunn, the former campaign manager for two School Board candidates aligned with County Citizens Defending Freedom last year, was charged Friday with seven first-degree misdemeanors for allegedly violating text message disclosure requirements.
The State Attorney’s Office said Dunn sent anonymous texts falsely claiming that School Board member Lisa Miller and her husband, Bob, were “the subject of a criminal investigation,” falsely claiming that Lisa Miller was the subject of a Polk County Public Schools investigation and making a false accusation that Miller is racist. The charges came after a seven-month investigation.
“I have probable cause to believe James Dunn orchestrated the sending of these illegal messages,” state attorney investigator David Lopez wrote in his March 10 report. The SAO provided LkldNow with copies of the report, affidavit and document charging Dunn with seven misdemeanors.
Dunn, who has a previous federal felony conviction, faces up to a year in jail if found guilty.
Lopez cleared all three candidates who had been connected with Dunn – Terry Clark, Jill Sessions and Rick Nolte – of any wrongdoing. He also cleared CCDF founder Steve Maxwell and CCDF.
Clark lost in the primary against incumbent Kay Fields and Sessions lost in the general election to Miller, who was the incumbent. Nolte won his race against incumbent Sarah Fortney after he received the endorsement of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The three candidates aligned with CCDF accused incumbent School Board members of allowing pornography in public schools media centers and pushing Critical Race Theory in schools, neither of which is true.
Through interviews with Clark and Sessions, and subpoenas to campaign consulting companies, banks, and email and cellphone providers, Lopez linked Dunn to the text messages, which were sent out between June 27, 2022, and June 29, 2022, using multiple phone numbers.
One of the messages stated that Miller had verbally attacked Black teachers and that she and her husband Bob are “the subject of a criminal investigation relating to awarded Polk school district construction contracts linked to her construction company operator husband. Vote August 23.”
Another text read that “Extremist school board member candidate Lisa Miller attacks former Republican Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields” and again stated that she “is potentially under criminal investigation.”
At the time, the State Attorney’s Office, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and then-Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia told LkldNow that neither of the Millers were under any kind of investigation. Polk County Public Schools has also said Miller was not being investigated for anything.
“That’s a vicious, ugly, political, campaign-induced lie,” Judd said at the time. “Somebody must be concerned she’s ahead in the campaign.”
“James Dunn’s business bank account was utilized to pay for the text messages sent through uCampaign,” Lopez wrote. “The name associated to the uCampaign account was James Dunn. Also associated to the uCampaign account was James Dunn’s cell phone number, email address, and company debit card, which was used to pay for this text message to be sent out … this text message did not include the phrase “paid for by” nor did it include the name of the person or organization sponsoring the text message, or a URL to a website containing the required disclosure. This is in violation of Florida state statute 106.147(1)(a).”
Lopez said Dunn, who will be 53 on Sunday, paid uCampaign three payments on June 22, totaling $1,094.
In addition, he said thousands of copies of the text messages were sent utilizing the bulk contact service Project Broadcast through multiple phone numbers. Like uCampaign, Project Broadcast allows users to message thousands of cell numbers at once.
Project Broadcast was utilized by Kayla Hensley and Grant Kiley, owners of KAG Strategies of Houston, Texas. Lopez said several phone numbers that sent the texts are associated with Hensley and Kiley. When Lopez called Hensley, she said she wanted to speak with an attorney and she would get back with him. He never heard from her or her attorney.
Clark and Sessions, Miller’s opponent, fully cooperated with investigators. Sessions sat down for an interview with State Attorney’s Office investigator Hank Smith on July 29.
“When asked if Dunn talked about utilizing text messages for her campaign, she stated “Yeah, text message. He’s talked about Facebook ads, robocalls, of course, mailers. But he said mailers weren’t really all that effective. So the main thing would be text message endorsements. You know, stuff that you put on Facebook. But he’s always talked about keeping it positive,” Lopez wrote.
Smith then showed Sessions a copy of one of the two text messages in questions and asked if Dunn had sent it.
“Candidate Session stated, ‘He said he had somebody send it,’ Lopez wrote. “Candidate Sessions stated Dunn did not go into details about who sent the message. Candidate Sessions stated after sending the text messages, Dunn sent her a screenshot of the text messages your affiant showed to her earlier in the interview,” Lopez wrote. “Candidate Sessions stated after the text messages were sent out she confronted him and told him ‘I don’t want anything to go out without my approval and without me seeing what you have because of what I learned on this.’ Candidate Sessions stated she told James Dunn that the State Attorney’s Office wanted to talk to her and his reply was ‘Well, you didn’t authorize the messages and you didn’t pay for them.’ Candidate Sessions stated she felt relieved when he told her this because she expected it to turn into a ‘He said she said’ situation.”
Sessions, Clark and Nolte told investigators that CCDF officials introduced them to Dunn at a meeting and Dunn told them his retainer was $7,500 and he would charge them $2,000 a month afterwards. Sessions and Clark signed a contract with Dunn, but Nolte did not and later told LkldNow that Dunn did not work for him.
Sessions said she hired him because she was told Dunn had an undefeated record in Texas of getting 25 School Board candidates elected.
“I’m a first-time candidate and I have much respect for CCDF and what they do and when they do their analysis on somebody, I know it’s good,” Sessions said.
Lopez interviewed Clark on July 12. Clark said he was aware that Dunn had a felony conviction for fraud, but he “is a person who believes in second chances.” Clark also said he had no idea who would’ve sent the text messages, but also never asked Dunn if he had.
Lopez tried to interview Dunn. On Dec. 13 at 11:30 a.m., he called Dunn, who answered his phone and identified himself.
“Your affiant informed Dunn he was a law enforcement officer conducting a criminal investigation into text messages that were sent to residents of Polk County and asked if he was willing to speak to your affiant about the incident,” Lopez wrote. “Dunn stated he wanted to speak to a local attorney in his area, and either he or the attorney would contact me back. As of the writing of this affidavit, I have not heard from James Dunn or his attorney.”
On Friday, Dunn told LkldNow that he was informed of the criminal complaint filed against him by LkldNow and by Ledger reporter Gary White. Officials with the State Attorney’s Office said the Polk County Clerk of Courts office would be sending Dunn copies of the complaint, per their usual procedure.
“We’ve called and inquired and there’s nothing,” Dunn texted. “You and Gary White are our only sources of information that this has happened.”
On Friday afternoon, the charges had not yet been entered into the clerk of courts’ online system.
The Millers own a real estate company, MillShire Realty. They have two children, Evie, 12, and Michael, 21, who is profoundly autistic. Miller, who is in her fifth year as a School Board member, has spent at least 16 years as an advocate for special needs students, including appointments by governors to statewide boards.
On Friday, Miller said she was relieved that Dunn has been charged.
“It is unfortunate that the CCDF chose to bring a known criminal here so my opponent could hire him to use illegal and damaging tactics to try and tarnish my reputation and the reputation of my husband with lies and slander,” Miller said. “Polk County voters showed up for a record victory because they recognized campaigns should be about the commitment to servant leadership, not outside interest groups raising dark PAC money. Hopefully, this sends a message that the powers of justice are serious about protecting everyone and protecting the integrity of the democratic process in this county and state.”
James Earl Dunn, Jr.
This is not the first brush with criminal behavior for Dunn, who works as a Texas political consultant.
Dunn was convicted of felony fraud in 2008, according to government documents uncovered by writer and former School Board member Billy Townsend, a supporter of Miller’s.
A 2008 news release issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General shows Dunn pleaded guilty to one count of submitting fraudulent claims for more than $300,000 to the government between 2002 and 2004, when he was the owner and operator of the now-defunct Rehab Specialist Inc. and claiming to be providing vocational training to veterans and people with disabilities.
“Dunn received contracts from the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services … from funds awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to provide vocational rehabilitation training to individuals with mental and physical disabilities,” the news release states. They say he fraudulently claimed “he was providing employment training and coaching to clients with disabilities when the clients were not receiving such training.”
He served nearly three years in prison.
Townsend also uncovered that Dunn has not complied with a 2021 Texas court order for his companies to repay $21,293 to Community Temple Church of God In Christ Houston. The church sued the companies in civil court and won.
Court records show that in December 2019, church financial secretary Stephanie Williams sent a letter to Dunn, demanding “evidence substantiating your claim of our approval of a grant in the amount of $981,000, and for you to produce signed contract(s), appraisals, contractor bids and other documentation that we have paid for to the tune of nearly $13,000. I have repeatedly requested from you this information and have never received this documentation … You made guarantees that you have failed to come through with. Further you have damaged my personal credibility with various colleagues and my own personal ministry that if there you things you could not deliver on, all you had to do was say that.”
In April 2020, the church sued Dunn’s two organizations, Brazoria County Alternative Academy and 2d Development, for “breach of contract” and “common law fraud,” saying they had paid him $13,000 to obtain, at minimum, a $5 million grant to help enlarge their church. “Defendants made materially false representations to Plaintiff with the knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of the truth…”
In August 2021, a district court judge ruled in favor of the church. In February, Dunn’s appeal was dismissed by a judge after he failed to file any documentation and the two companies he runs was ordered to repay the debt and $4,500 in attorneys’ fees.
Bishop Kurt Thompson told LkldNow last year that Dunn had not repaid the church anything.
The church’s attorney, James Hurt, told LkldNow that witnesses from other churches testified during the case to say Dunn had also defrauded them.
“They took hard money, trying to get money for the church and this guy, I think, led them down a primrose path,” Hurt said. “In Texas that judgement – a piece of paper – and 50 cents might get you a cup of coffee.”
Townsend also found on the website federalpay.org that five emergency federal Paycheck Protect Program loans during COVID were sent to five different companies using the same Angleton, Texas, address – an address used by James Earl Dunn. The checks totaled $286,242.
On the applications, Dunn claims to employ 25 people at five businesses, including two businesses named in the church’s lawsuit. It is unclear if the same employees worked for all five business. None of the employees are named. Dunn estimated his payroll expenses at one of the companies – named “James Early Dunn, Jr.” — for six employees, who were not named on the website, to be $600,000 – or $100,000 per employee. The companies, the amount they received, the type of businesses they were or are, the number of people employed, the bank that gave the loan and the date of the loan are:
- 2D Development LLC, $61,242, “vocational rehabilitation services,” 3 jobs, Bank of America, April 30, 2020
- James Earl Dunn, Jr., $125,000, “N/A” – no industry cited, 6 jobs, JP MorganChase, May 1, 2020
- Gulf Coast Community Action Agency Inc., $37,500, “other individual and family services,” 4 jobs, Regions Bank, Feb. 20, 2021
- Brazoria County Alternative Academy, $62,500, “elementary and secondary schools,” 6 jobs, Regions Bank, April 30, 2021
- Black Republicans of Brazoria County,$62,500, “elementary and secondary schools,” 6 jobs, Regions Bank, April 30, 2021
County Citizens Defending Freedom had featured Dunn on its Facebook page and YouTube channel. He touted managing the successful campaigns of two dozen “conservative, Judeo-Christian, Republicans” in Texas School Board races.
He also discussed “How Conservatives Win School Board Races” … “flipping four school boards to a conservative majority!” In it he talked about the importance of understanding campaign laws.
“I think one of the reasons we’ve won all of our conservative campaigns over the last couple of years is because we’ve endeavored in very sophisticated campaigning — texting, robocalling, emailing, Facebook ads,” Dunn said in one of the videos.
The video has since been removed from Youtube.
CCDF officials introduced their Polk County candidates to Dunn.
According to a July 11 email from CCDF USA Elections Division Leader Sarah Calamunci to School Board member Lisa Miller, Calamunci said CCDF brought Dunn to training in Mulberry.
“While our team was traveling across Texas, many people kept talking about a campaign coach that was having unmatched success in Texas,” Calamunci wrote. “If you recall, we were holding one of our monthly executive director trainings when you visited our headquarters. Dunn shared his success in Texas with those attending our monthly training and offered to meet with conservative candidates in our county while in town. We facilitated that meeting. We also held a virtual meeting attended by conservative candidates across Florida, Georgia, and Texas where Dr. Dunn answered questions and offered strategies for winning. These were both educational in nature.”
Campaign finance reports show that Clark and Sessions each paid Dunn $7,500.
Clark sent out an email to supporters on July 8, which was shared with LkldNow, stating, “Dr. James Dunn … has already had 20 thousand plus texts sent out all over the county. And in the next day or so, we will have 1000’s of Robocalls sent out.”
Last summer, Dunn granted permission for a phone call with LkldNow to be recorded for accuracy. When asked why he hadn’t paid back the church, the call abruptly ended. Dunn texted three times to say his signal went dead and he would attempt to call back. A return call to him went to voicemail.
LkldNow then asked in a text message:
- Why he hadn’t paid back the church
- The names of the employees of the five companies for which he obtained PPP loans
- If he sent out a text message claiming Lisa and Bob Miller were under investigation
- The content of 20,000-plus text messages he sent to Polk County voters
Dunn did not answer any of the questions, but replied in a text with a “tip” about an unnamed School Board member possibly violating a rule, but refused to provide details, documents to back up the “tip,” or name the board member.
“I don’t answer statements I don’t know who you say you are,” Dunn said. “Print my statement that I’ve provided to you whoever you are! … The community is thinking this is looking a bit racist.”
Dunn also told Ledger reporter Gary White that his reporting had racist overtones and filed a complaint about him with The Ledger’s corporate owners, Gannett. Dunn is Black.
On Aug. 3, he texted to LkldNow a letter he authored, addressed to White, demanding White “cease and desist from further defamatory statements about me and promptly issue a retraction.” The Ledger did neither.
CCDF’s Calamunci said in the email to Miller that CCDF did not hire Dunn.
“CCDF is not involved in ANY criminal activity. We have not used, paid, hired, or instructed anyone to make any fraudulent claims of any kind,” Calamunci said in a July 11 email to Miller. “We believe in fair and honest campaigns and elections. We do not have candidates. We do not endorse candidates. Dr. Dunn was not hired by CCDF in any capacity to work with the candidates running for school board. Dr. Dunn has an excellent history of success in his area of expertise and has helped dozens of candidates secure wins. The candidates that chose to hire Dr. Dunn did so based on his merit.”
CCDF issued a statement on its website Friday evening, saying they were happy to report that the investigation had ended and that Dunn had been charged. They thanked the State Attorney’s Office and Miller, “who was the subject of the text messages, for her determination to expose the truth.” They noted that CCDF never employed Dunn and that CCDF conducted its own investigation.
“We are grateful to live in a county and state where law and order prevail,” the CCDF statement reads.
When asked last summer if he would hire a campaign consultant convicted of felony fraud like Dunn, Sheriff Judd, who has run five successful campaigns, said, “Absolutely no, never ever, under any circumstance. It obviously is going to cause the voters to question the candidates’ decision-making ability.”
Judd is out of town and could not be reached Friday.
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