Stranger Things Surround This Year’s Polk School Board Races

This year’s School Board races are the most hotly contested campaigns in Polk County, following a national trend as far-right conservative candidates vow to “educate not indoctrinate” public schools students, as one local candidate has stated on his campaign signs.

Several controversial things have occurred in some of the local races, which are supposed to be non-partisan. A potentially illegal, anonymous text was sent to local Republicans with false accusations about an incumbent, three conservative candidates have declined interviews with Polk County’s traditional media outlets, and at least two of those same three candidates hired a man with a felony fraud conviction and an outstanding debt to a church that won a court order against two companies he runs.

Suspicious text

Republicans throughout the county received an anonymous text message in late June, falsely claiming that School Board member Lisa Miller and her husband, Bob, were “potentially under criminal investigation.”

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said his agency is not investigating the couple, who owns a real estate company, MillShire Realty. They have two children, Evie, 11, and Michael, 20, who is profoundly autistic. Miller has spent at least 15 years as an advocate for special needs children, including appointments by governors to statewide boards.

“They are not under criminal investigation by the Sheriff’s Office and have not been and that’s a vicious, ugly, political, campaign-induced lie,” Judd said. “Somebody must be concerned she’s ahead in the campaign.”

Miller said the State Attorney’s Office is investigating the text message as a potential violation of campaign laws because it was sent anonymously. Miller shared a text message with LkldNow from the State Attorney’s Office, saying the investigation into the source of the false text was ongoing, they had subpoenaed people, and are conducting interviews.

Jacob Orr, a spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office, said, “No investigation of the Millers exists.  We are not investigating the Millers.”

In addition, Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia confirmed that his agency is not investigating either one of the Millers.

Mum’s the word

Another rarity in this year’s race: Three candidates have declined routine candidate interviews with LkldNow or The Ledger, something not encountered by this reporter or Ledger reporter Gary White during decades of campaign reporting. They are Terry Clark, Rick Nolte and Jill Sessions.

Several national media outlets have reported that stonewalling traditional media outlets has become a recent trend. Republican candidates opt, instead, for “interviews” with Republican bloggers, vloggers, talk radio hosts, and right-wing news outlets, the articles claim. They also utilize social media to trumpet their message and delete anyone who asks hard questions.

All three signed a pledge card, saying “I stand with Governor Ron DeSantis and pledge to:

  • Keep schools open and reject lockdowns
  • Educate, don’t indoctrinate
  • Ensure parental rights in education and keep woke gender ideaology out of schools
  • Support robust civics education
  • Expand workforce development and technical education
  • Reject the use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the curriculum
  • Increase teacher pay
  • Continue support for school security and mental health initiatives
  • Protect the right of parents to petition school boards and districts for redress of grievances
  • Guarantee the right of parents to curriculum transparency

Candidate Justin Sharpless also signed the pledge card.

County Citizens Defending Freedom

Clark, Sessions, and Nolte are all involved or politically aligned with County Citizens Defending Freedom, an ultra-conservative political organization that has disrupted School Board meetings. In the last year, CCDF has opposed:

  • Masking students, teachers and staff in Polk County Public Schools during a worldwide pandemic
  • Some aspects of the reproductive health/sexual education curriculum in Polk County Public Schools
  • The alleged use of Critical Race Theory in Polk public schools, though PCPS officials say it has never been part of the curriculum.
  • Sixteen books in public school libraries they deem pornographic or age-inappropriate.

Because of its tax status, CCDF cannot endorse candidates. Steve Maxwell, CCDF’s founder and president, has contributed $1,000 each to Clark and Sessions, along with Pam Luce, who has since dropped out of the race.

Despite not being able to endorse candidates, CCDF and its members have injected themselves into this year’s School Board races through social media posts, issuing opposition research and introducing a campaign manager to candidates.

CCDF does not have a public membership roll. But the CCDF website says, “Becoming an Ambassador for Freedom means joining a community of like-minded Americans as we aim to save the America we grew up in. Ambassador benefits include:

According to the website, “becoming an Ambassador for Freedom means joining a community of  like-minded Americans as we aim to save the America we grew up in.” Ambassador benefits include:

  • Access to articles, videos and other exclusive resources
  • Being the first to know of any attacks on your Constitutional freedoms happening within your county
  • Call to action alerts to attend School Board meetings, local commission meetings, and public rallies
  • Legal action, support, defenses, and action through our partnership with a network of legal counsel, who are committed to defending the freedom of our citizens”

LkldNow asked Clark, Sessions, and Nolte if they are members of CCDF.

In a July 31 email to LkldNow, Clark wrote: “It is my understanding that CCDF doesn’t have members. Sorry I can’t help you.”

However, on the campaign questionnaire Clark filled out for CCDF, he wrote, “I am a member of the Faith Republican Club of West Polk County & CCDFUSA.”

Sessions also said CCDF doesn’t have membership. When asked if she were an “Ambassador for Freedom,” Sessions answered: “Not that I am aware of.” Session has shared multiple CCDF posts on her Facebook page, as have Clark and Nolte.

LkldNow did not hear back from Nolte.

Clark, Nolte, and Sessions have also espoused the same views as CCDF.

Nolte did not respond to a text or email seeking an interview for a candidate profile, and Sessions replied to an email, wanting to know what kinds of questions would be asked and if all the candidates were being interviewed. When told it was typical campaign questions and all the members were asked to participate, Sessions never responded again.

“I’d be glad to talk to you Monday but I’d like a copy of your questions ahead of time,” Clark, who is running against incumbent Kay Fields, wrote in a July 22 text message to LkldNow. When told neither he nor any of the candidates would be getting the questions ahead of time, Clark said he would notify his campaign manager, James Dunn. “He’ll be answering any questions you have on my behalf.”

When Clark was informed that LkldNow was speaking only with candidates for their views, he said he didn’t have time to talk to LkldNow.

At the July 26 School Board meeting, Clark attended the hour and a half meeting and waited until the end to speak for three minutes during public comment time, reading from a children’s book by Dr. Ben Carson to board members. Following the meeting, LkldNow approached Clark, asking if he had 20 minutes to sit down and answer questions. He claimed he didn’t.

“I’ll answer the questions as soon as you send them to me,” Clark said before rushing out the door and away from a reporter.

Nolte and Sessions also did not respond to several requests for interviews.

Provided Photo Sheriff Grady Judd is supporting Kay Fields in her re-election bid for Polk County School Board. He co-hosted a fundraiser for her at the Cleveland Heights Country Club.

Judd endorsed two School Board candidates this year in two of the four races, saying he didn’t want to get involved in the turmoil. He has thrown his support behind Clark’s opponent, Kay Fields, including hosting a fundraiser for her. In addition, he recently endorsed Sharpless in his race against Sara Jones for an open seat on the board.

CCDF has two Facebook profiles. County Citizens Defending Freedom USA is a public page with nearly 3,000 followers.

There is another CCDF page on Facebook — CCDF-USA Polk County FL (Backup for We the Patriots/No More Masks). It is a private page and posts are visible only to its 1,100 followers. Nicole Nolte, Rick Nolte’s daughter-in-law, is listed as an administrator of the private group. She is married to his son, Ren.

“Wake up Polk County. The Socialists are here and organizing. They have made their endorsements for School Board too,” Ren Nolte posted on his personal Facebook page on July 25. “It’s time we take back local elections, and stop this crap. These people hate America and the Constitution, they are here to exterminate the brutes.”

‘Obscene Material’

In January, CCDF told Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid that 16 books they had complained about were in possible violation of state statute and that librarians who provided them to children could be charged with a felony for each instance one of those books was checked out. Heid removed the books from library shelves to protect his employees from arrest and created a process to review each book at the district level. Two committees read eight books each and voted to return all of them back to PCPS libraries, deciding which grade levels each book was appropriate for.

Heid had discussed having an opt-in system for those 16 books, in addition to the opt out system that had been in place for decades. Although CCDF had originally wanted all 16 books removed from PCPS libraries, they declared the possibility of an opt-in system a victory. But following dissension from four School Board members, Heid re-implemented the opt-out only system. Three of those board members — Kay Fields, Sarah Fortney, and Lisa Miller — are currently running for re-election against Clark, Nolte and Sessions.

Now CCDF’s Robert Goodman is posting his outrage on Facebook that “four current school board members (allow) our children have access to library books that contain obscene and harmful content … Who will protect or shield the innocent children of Polk County? What will our local law enforcement do now that the books are back in circulation? Is this just politics in an election year? Have our children been politicized? This is not a political issue, this is simply an issue of good versus evil. Will no one stand up for good? Will no one protect our children?”

In addition, he posted excerpts from some of the books, along with a meme of Sheriff Judd protecting children while Pennywise, the clown from the Stephen King novel “It,” tempts children with some of the novels and the phrase, “Meanwhile public schools grooming kids with pornographic content.”

Heid addressed these issues in a response to an email from Lakeland resident Debra Baublitz, who complained that she “just found out how much the Polk County School Board wants to engage our children into deviant & sexual behavior … You should be expecting to hear from many of us that feel you have slapped us in the face by your audacity to allow this filth into our public school libraries.”

Heid thanked Baublitz for her email and concern.

“However, these books have not been found to be in violation of any state statute nor do they qualify as meeting the definition of being pornographic. This has been affirmed by multiple rulings in the state of Florida and by the federal Supreme Court rulings,” Heid wrote in an Aug. 15 email. “Two of the 16 books were fully approved by the committees and these votes included those representatives from the CCDF.”

Heid also said that CCDF complained to the Florida education commissioner, “who also informed the complainant that the department would not remove these books or take any action to do so. I do believe that the commissioner also shared that his own children read most of the books as part of their studies.”

Heid reiterated that the opt-out system allows all parents to remove any and all books they want from availability to their child, just as it has done for decades.

Sheriff Judd has said he will not arrest librarians.

On the CCDF USA page, CCDF officials at first complained about Heid not permanently removing 16 books it deemed “pornographic” or age inappropriate from library shelves. But last month applauded Heid and claimed a “win” for parents when he announced an opt-in program for the books.

The organization’s Facebook page hasn’t yet addressed a change in the school district’s policy that placed the 16 books under an opt-out-only status similar to all other library books.

James Earl Dunn

CCDF officials introduced the candidates to Texas political consultant James Dunn, who has a felony fraud conviction for submitting false claims for $300,000 to the federal government.

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.”

Dunn, Clark’s campaign manager, is also consulting on the campaign of Sessions, according to a campaign expense report. Clark stated in a July 8 email that “Jill Sessions and Rick Nolte are also using him.”

Campaign finance reports show that Clark and Sessions have each paid Dunn $7,500.

Dunn was convicted of felony fraud, according to government documents uncovered by writer and former School Board member Billy Townsend.

 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.

James Earl Dunn

“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 Dunn has 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 has featured Dunn on its Facebook page and YouTube channel. He has 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 adds,” Dunn said in one of the videos.

A July 8 email from School Board candidate Terry Clark

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.”

When reached by phone two weeks ago, Dunn granted permission for the phone call 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
  • What the names of the employees are 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
  • And what the content was of 20,000-plus text messages he sent to Polk County voters?

Dunn 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.”

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.”

After it became known that LkldNow was looking into Dunn’s past, CCDF issued a statement about a “20-year incumbent” School Board member’s campaign consultant Greg King, who has an arrest record. But CCDF never listed the incumbent’s name, nor for what King had been arrested.

“Dunn has been villainized by our local media. Will the media report with the same fervent outrage on this campaign consultant?” the CCDF press release states. “Will the media relentlessly pursue with as much time and energy to make the public aware of a 20-year incumbent’s choice of a criminal campaign consultant for not just one, but multiple campaigns? Will Greg King make the front page of The Ledger?”

That incumbent, Kay Fields, discussed her campaign consultant with LkldNow, frustrated that CCDF was trying to smear a man who she said has done typical campaign consulting work, like ordering campaign signs, along with marketing.

A background check of records in Broward County, where he lives, along with a document found in the Polk County Clerk of Courts website, shows King has multiple traffic violations, including an accident with bodily injury and/or property damage, several arrests for driving on a suspended license, having an expired tag and failure to provide proof of insurance within 24 hours of being stopped. His license was revoked last year for five years and he was labeled an habitual traffic offender, with at least 15 violations.

Fields provided King’s phone number and he immediately conducted an interview with LkldNow, provided documentation of one case, and gave his date of birth so a proper background check could be conducted and to ensure LkldNow was looking into the correct Greg King. He readily admitted that he had speeding tickets and multiple red-light camera violations in South Florida.

He said one 2019 ticket in Hendry County led to his arrest in Polk County. He had filed to appear in court to fight the ticket, but a family member’s funeral caused him to miss the court date. He said his attorney forgot to file an extension, so a judge issued a warrant for his arrest and suspended his driver’s license. He was pulled over in Winter Haven on Nov. 20, 2019, for a broken headlight and an officer running a check on his license found that he had a warrant in Hendry County. He was charged with having an arrest warrant from another jurisdiction, a third-degree felony. The charges were dropped in Hendry and Polk counties and King resolved the Hendry County ticket.

Everything he told LkldNow was verified in an affidavit listed online with the Polk County Clerk of Court website and a document he provided from Hendry County.

King said CCDF’s attempt to smear him are amateurish. “They just throw crap on the wall and hope it sticks,” King said. “You know what would happen if they had something on me? Don’t you think they’d attach it to their press release?”

Fields said she was unaware of King’s driving record, but said it has nothing to do with her campaign because he is not doing any driving for her. Her husband, former Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields, is her campaign manager.

“It has nothing to do with what we’re supposed to be doing and that’s what’s best for kids,” said Fields. “I don’t understand how it’s relevant.”

When asked 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.”

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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