Ever since the horrific congressional baseball shooting that almost took the life of Congressman Steve Scalise and former Hill staffer Matt Mika -- and came moments before Congressman Ron DeSantis arrived at the field -- members of Congress have been keenly aware that serving in public office has put a target on their backs.
So why on earth would Congressman Brian Mast turn into one of the rabble rousers inciting crazies to make targets of the public officials on the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board?
That's exactly what he's done.
As the governor's advisor on his $2.5 billion water initiative, Mast makes a point of accusing board members -- the ones he wants out -- of "serving special interests" and making important decisions in secret. He uses broad accusations of criminality, without ever listing what these members' "crimes" are.
Last week he issued two statements commenting on the appointment of two new board members, Chauncey Goss and Ron Bergeron. In each statement he included a line saying the current board has operated for far too long "without any transparency and prioritized special interests above the people of Florida.” The repetition is conspicuous and intentional.
If you repeat a lie enough times, it will become fact. Especially if it comes out of a congressman's mouth.
A congressman's words carry considerable weight, don't you agree, particularly to citizens who want to hear that message, who are looking for someone to blame for things in their lives they have no power over. They believe him. And sometimes they act on their anger.
I mention this now because of Melanie Peterson's Facebook video.
Melanie Peterson: I can stay silent no more
Peterson is just one former or current South Florida Water Management District board member who has received threatening or downright terrifying communications from people who hate the SFWMD Governing Board. In fact, every board member -- the ones like Peterson who already resigned and the ones who dug in their heels -- have fielded hate messages or death threats or both.
But Peterson decided to fight back. After a "creepy-voiced" anonymous caller with a Wallingford, Connecticut number told her he hopes she drowns in the polluted, algae-choked water she made, she used YouTube to publicize his phone number.
The caller is Michael Wendroff, 60, who may be a snowbird. One of his other addresses is in Florida, listed as North Venice Beach. By the time I tried to reach him, he wasn't picking up and never returned my call. But Peterson said, "Apparently my mother called this man, he has apologized and regrets making the call.
Sure he regrets it now.
"I am also hearing that employees of the District have been targeted ... My prayers are with them and their families," she said.
Peterson doesn't equivocate on the video. "I blame Congressman Brian Mast for his rhetoric, for his bullying and for perpetuating this kind of behavior, because this is not how civilized people discuss problems or find solutions ..." She calls Wendroff "yet another psychopath enlisted by the Brian Mast army to harass and bully people ..."
Gov DeSantis ultimately will come to regret the jihad against board members, she says. They are unpaid public appointees chosen by the governor, but the board itself is a creature of the Legislature.
Board member Jim Moran from Boynton Beach, showed me a stack of emails -- hate mail all -- some with the same nasty line: "I would like to see you keel-hauled from one end of Lake Okeechobee to the other! Awe...too bad that's illegal ... but so is what you and your cronies have done."
"I’ve been called lowlife, scum, a money grubber and a bribe taker," Moran told me. "None of this ever happened in my eight years on the board until Mast came on the scene. This whole issue with demanding our resignations isn’t a result of anything we did wrong but a result of us not kowtowing to an egomaniac bully loudmouth ..."
Moran was one of three members whose term on the board was up in March. Though the three had only one meeting remaining, the governor demanded their immediate resignations anyway.
What’s going on here is as plain as the nose on your face. The Everglades Trust/Foundation whispers to Mast and Mast has the governor's ear. So far the governor hasn't denounced Mast's tactics. Earlier on, when board members wouldn’t resign and the governor found out he could only suspend them for cause, close allies suggested asking the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate them.
Said Moran, a lawyer, "That's outrageous and illegal."
If Governing Board members have been "putting special interests ahead of the people of Florida for years," then Congressman Mast should be transparent himself -- open up, stop the blanket accusations and show citizens proof board members are criminals. And have been, as he's said, "for years."
I asked for proof. This is the proof Brad Stewart, Mast's spokesman, gave me: "Most recently, hiding a vote on a lease extension with Florida Crystals until 9 p.m. the night before the vote, then ignoring a plea from the governor-elect to delay the vote, then criticizing citizens who wanted to engage in the process as the “peanut gallery” -- as if somehow demeaning citizens who care about the environment justifies anti-environmental, pro-industry actions."
Really. That's the proof of criminality the Mast team offers. A single incident over an issue embedded in Statute.
As Katrina Elsken, editor of the Okeechobee News, comments, "The "surprise" lease deal was no surprise to those who have been following SFWMD for decades. Lease renewals are usually done with no discussion as "consent agenda" items. And this lease actually made it possible to speed up the EAA work. They are out there on the site working on it right now, clearing 500 acres where they will stockpile rocks, doing geotechnical borings, etc., all thanks to the lease agreement."
My point in telling you this story is, board members have every right to be frightened.
In a 2015 decision that weighed the protection of free speech against protecting people from online abuse, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of people being scary nutjobs on the Internet. I remember the case well. Apparently, even explicitly violent posts aren't a crime, they're "therapeutic lyrics" and therefore free speech -- unless you can prove the nutjob's comments were meant to be taken seriously. And you can't really do that until after he's put a bullet in your head.
So, being a horrifyingly vulgar trashcan of a person isn’t a crime. But it certainly can scare the pants off you. And when you've got a stack of hate-filled emails and social media posts inspired by a U.S. congressman, as every one of these Governing Board members do, you have to ask yourself, what are my odds that one of these writers is unhinged enough to upgrade to violence?
The bottom line here is, Mast should have known better. He knows all about threatening phone calls.
Stewart, his spokesman, having seen Peterson's video, gave me this statement on Saturday:
"While Congressman Mast and others have disagreed with many of the public policy decisions Ms. Peterson made while she was serving on the board, Congressman Mast absolutely doesn’t condone threats against public officials or private citizens, especially considering that Congressman Mast’s own children have been threatened by a liberal activist in Martin County."
The story, "Grand jury indicts man on charges he threatened to kidnap, kill Rep. Brian Mast's children," was in Treasure Coast Newspapers (TCPalm) on Aug. 17, 2018 after the threatener was indicted by a federal grand jury. FBI agents had arrested Laurence Key 68, in Stuart two months earlier.
According to the newspaper report, Key said on the phone to an intern at Mast's Washington office, "I'm going to find the congressman's kids and kill them. If you are going to separate kids at the border, I'm going to kill his kids. Don't try to find me because you won't."
Oh, yes, and look what's happened in Congress since the ballfield shooting:
In 2016, there were 902 threatening incidents and communications against members of Congress. By 2017, the reports had more than doubled to about 2,000, according to the House Sergeant at Arms office.
In response, the House Administration Committee allocated $25,000 to each member in 2017 and again in 2018 to beef up their personal and office security, prompting members to hire bodyguards for events and equip offices with panic buttons and shatter-resistant glass.
Congress is looking out for Mast's protection, as it should in this world of crazies.
But so should Mast and the governor look out for the District's departing board members. Which they can do by stop demonizing them and stop trashing their service to the State of Florida.
Frankly, I think they owe every board member a public apology, but I won't hold my breath.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith