Former South Daytona officials sentenced
to prison in bribery case
Article Courtesy of The Daytona Beach News Journal
By Lyda Longo
Published September 18, 2011
ORLANDO -- Two former South Daytona city officials -- one an ex-mayor -- were sentenced to prison Thursday after a federal judge heard testimony that shed light on the bribery scandal which disgraced both men and ended their public careers.
Former Mayor Ron Clifton and former Special Magistrate Jerome Mitchell were sentenced to two and three years in federal prison, respectively -- Clifton to 24 months, Mitchell to 37 months for accepting bribes to reduce city code enforcement liens.
U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven showed no leniency toward Mitchell, giving him the high end of the sentence recommended in the sentencing guidelines, which called for him to serve between 30 and 37 months.
Scriven, however, departed from the recommended sentencing guidelines for Clifton -- between 37 and 46 months -- by giving him less than what the U.S. Attorney's office had asked for, but slightly more than Clifton's attorney had requested: 12 to 18 months.
The maximum penalty for bribery is up to 10 years in prison.
The identity of the confidential informant who paid the bribe money to both men was revealed accidentally in court by Clifton, 41, in a moment of raw emotion as he spoke to Scriven.
Clifton and Mitchell, 42, a disbarred attorney, were each paid $5,000 in June 2010 by an unnamed "investor's representative" who wanted city code enforcement liens reduced against the River Club Condominiums, 3131 S. Ridgewood Ave. Clifton also accepted a second bribe of $2,500 at his home in August 2010, records show.
That investor's representative, or confidential informant, is Stuart Buchanan, a planner with Brevard County government who has worked for the cities of South Daytona, Holly Hill and Daytona Beach.
Both Mitchell and Clifton accepted the cash in exchange for Mitchell's guarantee that the $241,000 in liens against the condominium property would be lowered.
Mitchell's attorney Mike Lambert claimed the meeting where the plan to reduce the liens was discussed and the cash bribes paid had been set up by law enforcement.
"It does not appear that the 'purported investor's representative' represented anyone other than law enforcement and that the scheme put together to obtain a reduction in the City of South Daytona liens placed upon 3131 South Ridgewood Avenue was one generated by law enforcement, and not any real potential investor, or investment group," Lambert wrote in Clifton's sentencing memorandum.
Lambert's assertion became clearer Thursday when Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Irick told Scriven that the "CI" (confidential informant) -- Buchanan -- was working with the government on other investigations and the situation with Clifton and Mitchell "presented itself."
Clifton, who said he accepted the bribe out of "retribution for people who had wronged me and other people," blurted out Buchanan's name when he stood before Scriven.
"The confidential source knew well how to play to my vanities," Clifton said. "Stuart played to my weakness and he played it well."
Admitting he had been arrogant and delusional, Clifton said, "I didn't do the right thing."
"I've taken 40 years of what I've learned from my teachers, my parents, my wife and my kids and I threw it all away," he said, his voice wavering. "This is not where I was supposed to be."
Mitchell, for his part, was also apologetic, but cast blame upon Clifton, saying Clifton had arranged the entire deal. Mitchell said he accepted the bribe because "I was in some pretty dire financial straits at the time."
The bribes were paid out on June 1, 2010, when both men met with Buchanan at the Stonewood Grill & Tavern in Port Orange. Clifton had met with Buchanan two months prior -- in April 2010 -- and Clifton suggested Mitchell would reduce the liens for cash, records show.
At a code enforcement hearing in South Daytona on July 8, 2010, Mitchell made good on his promise to reduce the liens against the River Club. The liens were lowered from $241,000 to $12,500, records show.
Buchanan was also at that meeting, and according to the minutes, was the individual who requested the liens be lowered.
In late August 2010, Buchanan went to Clifton's house and paid him another $2,500.
The FBI then began investigating Clifton and Mitchell in October 2010, records show.
Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Irick played videos of the meetings Buchanan had with Clifton and Mitchell. Buchanan was wired for sound and equipped with a small camera. In the video of the meeting at Clifton's house, Clifton's children can be heard playing in the background as their father takes the cash from Buchanan.
That bothered Scriven. But the judge was more perturbed with Mitchell because of an ongoing case that got him disbarred in 2009 for his handling of real estate transactions that allowed a gasoline distributor in Daytona Beach to disappear with $25 million from the scam.
Scriven also displayed impatience for Lambert's arguments that Mitchell's troubles stemmed from his long struggle with drugs and alcohol.
After she sentenced him to the maximum of 37 months, Scriven admonished Mitchell: "You misplaced your morality someplace along your path."
Because Clifton had no criminal baggage in his past, Scriven called his part in the bribery scandal "an aberration of sorts."
Both men will be allowed to surrender on Oct. 21; Clifton's attorney, James Dickson Crock, requested his client be sent to the federal prison in either Jesup, Ga., or Pensacola. Lambert did not make a similar request for Mitchell.