When Frank Johnston and Jeffrey Stuck confronted Volusia County Chair candidate Deb Denys last week, they identified themselves as members of the press.
But the questions they hurled at Denys as she told them repeatedly to leave her alone were hardly about county policy.
Johnston asked Denys repeatedly why she hasn’t denounced the Ku Klux Klan. (Denys, to be clear, has never expressed support for the Ku Klux Klan.)
Johnston also is a supporter of Jeff Brower, who is running against Denys. Johnston and Brower filed separate and overlapping ethics complaints a day apart against Denys earlier this month. The Florida Ethics Commission quickly rejected both complaints.
Johnston’s past also includes a charge of misdemeanor battery in Broward County in 2017, records show. He was not convicted of the charge.
Also, Johnston withdrew as a candidate for the Hollywood City Commission after the Sun Sentinel newspaper of Fort Lauderdale reported that he had listed as his home address a defunct golf course.
As much as anything, the confrontational interview with Denys is an indication of the toxic nature of this year’s local political season, and the way partisans have attempted to take on the role of journalists — including on social media — to score political points.
An odd encounter
The confrontation with Denys took place outside The Center in Deltona as she was walking into a function. Johnston, who is 40 and now lives in Port Orange, identified himself as a member of “American Patriot Channel” and immediately began asking Denys questions, including why she hasn’t repudiated the Ku Klux Klan. Trailing Johnston was Stuck, with a camera. Also on the scene was Deltona City Commissioner Chris Nabicht, a Denys supporter who also filmed the scene.
Denys did not not answer the men in the video, except to tell them repeatedly to leave her alone. When she entered The Center, Johnston and Stuck followed and continued to pepper Denys with questions until she reached the room where the private function was being held.
In a phone interview this week, Denys said she doesn’t know why Johnston was asking about the Ku Klux Klan, and would not dignify such a question with a response. She added that she refused to be “bullied or harassed.”
Johnston reached out to The News-Journal earlier this week with a YouTube video posted that includes portions of the confrontation with Denys.
In an initial interview, Johnston said he is merely a citizen trying to get answers. He asserted that because Denys has not denounced white supremacy or the KKK in the past 7 years, she must support them.
“Well, I think if she’s refusing to answer it, it makes us believe she does,” said Johnston.
Johnston, who said he is a Republican, admitted he has no evidence that Denys has ever supported the KKK. Without being specific, he said he has heard rumors in Volusia County Democratic circles that Denys was accusing Brower of being a member of the white supremacy organization.
Brower, in a separate interview, said he has been asked about whether he has been affiliated with the KKK by several Democrats already, including Gerard Witman, a Democrat who faced both Brower and Denys in the primary but lost.
Witman, reached by phone this week, recalled asking Brower whether he was affiliated with The Proud Boys, a far-right, all-male organization. He said he could not recall his specific question, but said it had to do with a bar at which the county chair candidates had been asked to speak before the primary in August.
The News-Journal reached out to Imperial Wizard of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Chris Barker and asked if either Denys or Brower were members. The organization said neither candidate is affiliated with the group.
‘Please stop harassing me’
While past Volusia County races have been contentious, this year’s county chair race may be the most vitriolic yet. It’s included significant attacks against both candidates on Facebook, some of them personal.
Brower and his supporters have repeatedly attacked Denys for the support she has received from developers, and suggested without any specific evidence that the county is running as a corrupt pay-to-play system.
In turn, a Denys campaign mailer alleged Brower would cut funding to public safety, which Brower called an outright lie. Public employee unions related to law enforcement have written checks in support of Brower.
Brower — and Johnston — both filed complaints against Denys with the Florida Ethics Commission. The complaints, which include overlapping information, were filed within a day of each other — Oct. 14 and 15. Both were returned because they were filed within 30 days of the Nov. 3 election, and because such complaints should actually be filed with the Florida Division of Elections.
Denys said she believes Johnston is working with Brower’s campaign to “harass” her. Brower says that’s not true.
In a phone interview this week, Brower said he does not really know Johnston except from social media. The two are Facebook friends. He said Johnston sent him an email asking for his signature on an affidavit he wanted to include with his ethics complaint against Denys, and Brower signed the document for Johnston.
Brower added the was unaware of Johnston’s legal and political history in South Florida.
So far, the video of Johnston with cameraman Jeffrey “Bluze Freeman” Stuck, 53, an oft-critic of Deltona government, had been seen about 1,200 times as of Wednesday afternoon, according to YouTube. But it was removed from the social network by Thursday afternoon.
In the video, Johnston and Stuck can be seen waiting outside The Center in Deltona for Denys as she approached to attend a campaign event.
Johnston, holding a microphone, identifies himself to Denys as from “American Patriot Channel” and proceeds to ask her why she won’t denounce the KKK while Stuck mans a camera behind him.
“We want to ask you about the 2013 investigation that was in New Smyrna by the State Department regarding the KKK and the white supremacists,” states Johnston.
“Please stop harassing me,” Denys repeatedly replies while walking away.
“At this point, you have not denounced the white supremacy or the KKK,” says Johnston in the video. “Is it true that, what we’re hearing, that you fed the Democratic Party information that Jeff Brower was a member of the KKK and white supremacists?”
Denys told The News-Journal she didn’t recognize either of the men, but did not feel they were members of the press and believed the pair were there to harrass and bully her.
“All I wanted to do was just get past them and into our event,” said Denys, reached by phone Tuesday.
Deltona City Commissioner Chris Nabicht, a Democrat, was walking into The Center with Denys when the encounter occurred and videotaped it on his cell phone. Nabicht told The News-Journal the questions Johnston asked were bizarre.
“When we went into The Center, I looked at her and I said, ‘What? What is this about?,'” recalled Nabicht.
‘Are you serious?’
Brower, for his part, said the questions about KKK affiliation first came to him at a chamber event in Southeast Volusia that both he and Denys attended. He said he also is defending himself against allegations that he is somehow connected to the hate group.
“This has happened numerous times,” said Brower. He said the first person to ask him if he is connected to the KKK had the last name of Clinton, but Brower couldn’t recall the man’s first name.
“He said, ‘I have a couple questions for you.’ The first question was, ‘Are you a member of the Ku Klux Klan?’ recalled Brower. “I’m standing there with my wife, and all my kids. And I just looked at him and said, ‘Are you serious?'”
Brower said the question was akin to asking, “How often do you beat your wife?”
He said he replied to the man, “No. They’re a despicable, hateful group. …And then (the man) said, ‘Are you a white supremacist?’ I said, ‘No. Where is this coming from?’
“You know, I understand politics is a rough-and-tumble game,” said Brower. “But it ought to be rooted in issues and honesty.
“If that’s what I’m left with, that after this campaign, that our loss was because of the rumors that I was with the KKK, my family name is ruined, and I am not going to let that happen,” said Brower, clearly agitated.
Denys said while she did not feel Johnston and Stuck were journalists, she didn’t and doesn’t have any issue with them posting videos or asking questions. But she said she believes Johnston’s approach was not to report news but to intimidate.
‘It makes me cautious’
In July, 2017, Johnston was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery in a suspected domestic violence incident, according to Broward County Clerk of Court records. The charges were dropped by the state the following month, records show.
Records in that county also indicate that Johnston filed charges of stalking against three other people. The records in those cases are sealed.
Then, in June 2018, the same year he ran for office there, a Hollywood woman named Karen N. Caputo also claimed Johnston was stalking her. The charges were dismissed and, in a matter of 12 days, the case was closed and the records sealed.
Denys said she found out about Johnston’s past charge after the fact.
“It makes me cautious,” said Denys.
The News-Journal wasn’t aware of the past charge against Johnston before interviewing him earlier this week. When the newspaper called him a second time to ask about the charges, he said it wasn’t a good time to talk and hung up.
In his initial interview with the newspaper about his confrontation with Denys, Johnston insisted he just wants to be a good citizen and an informed voter.
Why did Johnston ask Denys about the KKK? He said he’d heard that Denys supports the KKK. Who did he hear it from? Johnston wouldn’t say.
“Supporters, people showing up,” said Johnston. “It was a constant thing I was hearing repeatedly about this event, where (Denys and Brower) were invited to speak.”
Johnston’s own brush with political candidacy down in Broward County was brief.
According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, he dropped out of a race for a Hollywood City Commission seat in 2018 because he decided to move. According to the newspaper, Johnston wouldn’t say where he was moving to, but that there were questions at the time as to whether he lived where he said he did.
According to a campaign filing report Johnston filled out before vacating the race, he professed to live at the address of a defunct golf course, according to the Sun-Sentinel. Hollywood public information officer Raelin Storey confirmed the site Johnston listed as his address was a former golf course.
Johnston, in his interview earlier this week with The News-Journal, said he works with “Liberty Cause” to “uncover the stuff” and uses his American Patriot YouTube channel to share it.
Liberty Cause is another YouTube channel that posts videos that are in large part critical of Deltona city government.
“I work with (Stuck) you know, he’s the knowledge behind it,” said Johnston in reference to Liberty Cause. “I come in and you know, work with them to basically uncover the stuff or to expose it or get the community involved in supporting of a project.”
Johnston said his reporting isn’t always elections-related.
Topics on his American Patriot site include titles such as, “Essential tools you need to complete your AR15 build” and “Benefits of building with 80 lowers,” where he shares the benefits of building a so-called “ghost gun.” Local political videos include “Jeff Brower for the police” and “Deb ‘The RINO’ Denys Violation evidence.”
In that last referenced video, Johnston speaks at length about what he said were Denys’ violations of campaign finance law. Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Lisa Lewis has said Denys has not committed any campaign violations.
Johnston said he has filed official complaints with four state agencies against Denys, including the state attorney, the state attorney general, the Florida Ethics Commission and the state Division of Elections.
According to Spencer Hathaway with the state attorney’s office, the office had not received any complaints from Johnston as of Wednesday. State Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office did not return a call seeking records. A spokesman for the state Division of Elections said they cannot confirm or deny that a complaint had been filed – and it only becomes public if a determination is made.
The Florida Commission on Ethics said while the agency normally won’t confirm or deny a complaint, they could in this case because the complaints against Denys were sent back to Johnston and Brower because: 1) the commission cannot accept any complaints filed within 30 days of election day; and 2) the complaint should have been filed with the state Division of Elections.
Johnston’s 149-page complaint dwarfs Brower’s 15 pages, mainly due to copies of multiple complaints filed with several state agencies and exhibits showing Denys’ campaign donations. Johnston focuses mainly on Denys’ political action committee chairmanship. But both touch on overlapping issues, including complaints about the Denys mailer that suggests Brower will cut funding for law enforcement.
A rough season
Nabicht said he can’t recall an election season so brutal.
He said when he first ran for office eight years ago, he and his opponents were cordial to one another. They debated issues and at one point, he said,they shared Gatorade and bought sandwiches for each other. He called the mud-slinging this election season “ridiculous minutiae” that candidates and voters should avoid.
“It’s on both sides. I mean, the Democrats in some instances are just as bad as the Republicans,” said Nabicht. “But I think, overall, the general public wants to hear issues, they don’t want to hear this ridiculous name calling.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the court records of Frank Johnston in Broward County. Johnston filed charges of stalking against three other individuals. Those records are now sealed.
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