Council blocks winning candidate over old felony conviction
OCALA, Fla. (AP) — Ocala dramatically blocked its newly elected councilman from taking office Tuesday night over a 33-year-old felony cocaine conviction. The case is believed to be the first time a Florida politician has been disqualified after an election because of serious crimes.
The city attorney interrupted as Tyrone Oliver, 63, prepared to take the oath of office. "The constitutional prohibition still applies here," Patrick Gilligan told the council.
Oliver briefly stormed out of the meeting without comment after about 90 minutes, before the council decided on its course of action. He returned moments later, appearing calm.
“We’re in a limbo land,” Gilligan said.
The council said the mayor will announce at its next meeting whether to conduct another special election or hold the council seat vacant until the next round of normally scheduled elections in the spring.
Oliver, who would have been the only black councilman for the city, said after the meeting his future as a politician was in the hands of others.
“They voted for who they want,” he told Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. “God has the last word,” he said, declining to answer further questions.
Gilligan said the city's charter technically would allow the council to accept Oliver on the panel, even as Florida's constitution declares ex-felons unqualified to hold public office unless they obtain approval from a clemency board or are pardoned.
Gilligan added, "I don't know what you all want to do."
Oliver's lawyer, Richard Coates, proposed waiting until Florida's clemency board rules on a request to fully restore Oliver's civil rights, Gilligan said. The board was expected to meet early Wednesday morning in Tallahassee, but it was not immediately clear whether it would consider Oliver's case. Coates proposed delaying any decision until the council’s next meeting, on Dec. 17.
Officials said there were more than 1,000 clemency applications pending before the state board, including one from Oliver. He told the council Tuesday that he has been seeking clemency since 2012 and submitted his most recent appeal last year.
Outgoing councilwoman Mary Sue Rich said that if Oliver applied for clemency at least twice, "he knew he’s a convicted felon." The crowd at the meeting appeared to murmur its support. Oliver won the runoff for Rich’s seat on the council.
The attorney for the runner-up in the election, Ire Bethea, said he was considering a lawsuit to force a new election. Bethea attended Tuesday night's meeting.
"It’s nonsense for the community to go through this," attorney Richard Perry said.
The mayor said if the city were to hold a new election, it could do so during federal and county elections in spring 2020. That would reduce the expense of a special election, which usually costs about $50,000.
The decision came one week after Ocala announced its formal investigation into whether Oliver was qualified to serve in public office.
Oliver was convicted in September 1986 on charges of selling and possessing cocaine, according to a letter last week from the city attorney. He concluded that the councilman-elect could not serve under Florida law. Oliver served three months in jail and three years on probation, according to Marion County Circuit Court records.
Under Florida’s constitution, ex-felons are unable to hold public office until receiving a pardon or successfully appealing to the state’s clemency board to have their rights restored.
Gilligan said in his letter to Oliver that the mixup appeared to be a “good faith mistaken interpretation” of the change in Florida’s law last year automatically restoring the rights of most ex-felons to vote in elections. But the change explicitly did not affect laws for ex-felons running for office or serving on juries.
Oliver, a chaplain of Deliverance Outreach Ministries of Ocala, defeated Bethea 52% to 48% – by only 124 votes – in a runoff election Nov. 19 to win Ocala’s District 2 seat. The seat, previously held by retiring Council President Rich, holds a four-year term and represents citizens in the northwest part of the city.
Bethea said he plans to run again.
Fresh Take Florida reporter Quan McWil contributed to this report. This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.