Okeechobee County Judge campaign creates controversy

OKEECHOBEE — Allegations of a “whisper campaign” and information from a personnel file circulated anonymously have cast a shadow on the Okeechobee County Judge race.

At the Oct. 8 political forum and on her campaign Facebook page, county judge candidate Deborah Hooker has accused her opponent of obtaining and using a 2011 memo written by a Trial Court Administrator critical of Ms. Hooker’s performance as a magistrate. Ms. Hooker called the memo, which was later officially withdrawn, “full of misinformation, misrepresentations, and omissions about my work.”

Deborah Hooker

In an Oct. 12 telephone interview, William Wallace, Ms. Hooker’s opponent in the county judge race, said that earlier in the campaign he received an anonymous package containing documents about Ms. Hooker. Mr. Wallace said he did not share these documents with anyone and did not make any copies. He said he wanted his campaign to be about his own qualifications.

An anonymous package containing what were later determined to be documents from Ms. Hooker’s personnel file from the years she served as a magistrate for the 19th Judicial Circuit (2004-2011), was also left at the Lake Okeechobee News office.

It is unknown if any other copies were made of the documents were made or who – if anyone – received them.

William Wallace

After the forum, Lake Okeechobee News made an official public records request for all documents in Ms. Hooker’s personnel file that are subject to release under the Florida Public Records Law. That file was received by the newspaper on Oct. 12. This 86-page file contained all of the documents that had been included in the anonymous package as well as many additional documents. The July 8 memo – along with the document stating the memo had been withdrawn – were included in that file.

The newspaper also filed a public records request “for any emails or letters making a public records request for Deborah Hooker’s personnel file.” Besides the public records request from the newspaper, only one such inquiry was on file: In a letter dated July 12, 2018 attorney Glenn Sneider made an official public records request for the entire personnel file of Deborah Hooker as well as all email, instant messages, letters and written communication of any kind to, from or between Deborah Hooker, Magistrate to Thomas Genug, Trial Court Administrator, or Hon. Steve Levin, or other Chief Judge or Acting Chief Judge, from Jan. 1, 2011 through July 31, 2011.

In an Oct. 16 telephone interview, Mr. Sneider said he requested the personnel file because he had questions about why Ms. Hooker stopped being a magistrate in 2011. “I wanted to make sure I knew the facts,” he said. Mr. Sneider said he shared the information with some colleagues who were also curious about what happened; he declined to share their names.

Mr. Sneider said he was not responsible for the packages of documents left at the newspaper and at Mr. Wallace’s office, and he does not know who did that.

“Personally, I like Deborah very much,” said Mr. Sneider. “I don’t think she is conducting herself very judiciously in this campaign.”

“We all love Okeechobee because it’s a small town. As with every small town, there’s an active grape vine. Lately, the grape vine has been burning up with misinformation, misrepresentations and omissions about my magistrate work,” said Ms. Hooker, Oct. 15.

“Fortunately, several honest and faithful friends let me know — in a confidence that I will continue to respect — about these smears. They encouraged me to confront them, and I stood up in public, faced my opponent, and spoke the truth. Unsurprisingly, he denies spreading the smears.”

What’s in the memo?

In Oct. 15 interview at the newspaper office in Okeechobee, Ms. Hooker said until she recently asked for a copy of her own personnel file with the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit, she did not know the July 8, 2011 memo from Thomas A. Genug, Trial Court Administrator, labeled “RE: Termination of Employment,” was still in her personnel file. She had been told the memo had been withdrawn, she explained.

The July 8 memo accused Ms. Hooker of failing to complete recommended orders on cases she heard in a timely manner. In the memo, Mr. Genung also complained that Ms. Hooker did not respond to his earlier emails asking for updates on her leave status and on the recommended orders on cases she had heard. Accusing Ms. Hooker of “neglect of duty, Mr. Genung states, “Accordingly effective 5 p.m. on July 7, 2011, your employment as magistrate with the 19th Judicial Circuit is terminated.”

In the Oct. 15 interview, Ms. Hooker said she did not receive the July 8, 2011 memo, although she has seen a return receipt which indicates it was mailed to her home and was signed for by her mother on July 11, 2011. She explained that in the time frame referenced in the memo, that rather than communicating with Mr. Genung, she had been communicating directly with the judges.

“I never considered him (Mr. Genung) my supervisor,” she said. “I worked for the judges. I had the backing of my judges.”

Ms. Hooker said her mother was in a serious auto accident in May 2011, and that she kept the chief judge updated on “where I was and what I was doing.”

She said the chief judge was very understanding about her need to put family first. “About a month into it, I knew I couldn’t do my job and care for Mother,” she explained. She said she contacted the chief judge and offered to resign, but he encouraged her to try to work it out in the hope the situation would improve.

“The reality was, things were getting worse with my mother’s health,” she said. Ms. Hooker said she hired a caregiver for her mother for two weeks so that she could finish the court orders as she wanted to leave on good terms with the court.

“My chief judge knew exactly what had been going on,” she said. “He knew the truth.”

“Unbeknownst to me, he (Genung) is writing these memos,” she said.

The personnel file includes a July 7, 2011 memo from Mr. Genung to Ms. Hooker, with the subject line: “Acknowledgment of Resignation.” In the memo, Mr. Genung states he accepts her resignation. Ms. Hooker said this memo is dated the day before Mr. Genung mailed the July 8, 2011 “termination” memo, and five days before she submitted her resignation. She officially resigned on July 12, 2011.

A July 12, 2011 memo (also in the file) from Mr. Genung stated: “On behalf of the judges and communities in the jurisdictional bounds of the 19th Judicial Circuit Court, we thank you for your service. I accept your resignation effective 5 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13, 2011. In addition, as directed by Chief Judge Levin, I am withdrawing the memo to you dated July 8, 2011. We wish you success in your future endeavors.”

Forum comments

“Judges are known for making important decisions with profound, long term consequences,” said Deborah Hooker at the Oct. 8 political forum sponsored by the Okeechobee Economic Council.

“In a courtroom, judges’ decisions are based on the law, precedent, evidence and courtroom testimony taken under oath and cross examination.

“Although imperfect — and as Americans we must continue to strive for a more perfect union — this treasured system excels at enabling us to arrive at clarity, equal protection under the law and ultimately justice for all,” she said.

“Unfortunately, this court process is the exact opposite of today’s political process. Too often, too many who travel the political arena have no clarity or truth and instead navigate through confusion, half-truths and mis-truths,” she continued.

“Rather than respect a worthy opponent, destruction of the opponent’s reputation is the goal. And forgoing justice in the political arena is commonplace as the accepted standard now is the ends justify the means. Today’s political process has harmed our country and it is absolutely harming our county.

“When you decide who to vote for county judge, I ask you to examine the evidence of my credentials, reject the rumors from my opponent, and vote for me.

“For over seven years I was assigned as a full-time general magistrate to Okeechobee and Martin Counties, presiding over more than 9,000 trials and hearings in family, dependency and mental health cases. I witnessed in intimate detail the devastation from opioid and other addictions which continues to harm so many of Okeechobee’s families.

“I saw the hurt, aggravated by a sense of sorrow shame and stigma that individuals and families felt in mental health matters. Tough but fair in adjudication, my magistrate work in both counties encompassed a massive work load. I was grateful to embrace that workload.

“In 2011, my mother suffered a near fatal accident which required extensive rehabilitation and kept me from my work. I honored my deeply held values of ‘family first’ – which so many Okeechobee residents share – and I resigned as a magistrate to be by my mother’s time.

“During that time, unbeknownst to me, a trial court administrator wrote a memo full of misinformation, misrepresentations and omissions about my work. Knowing the truth, the chief judge ordered the memo to be withdrawn, and it was withdrawn. Vindicated, I moved on.

“Somehow during this judicial campaign, my opponent obtained this withdrawn memo with its misinformation, misrepresentations and omissions and is using it alongside a nasty whisper campaign to impugn my reputation and my magistrate record,” she said.

In his comments at the forum William Wallace did not respond to Ms. Hooker’s allegations. He spoke about his own qualifications for the county judge position.

“On Aug. 8, the primary election was held in Okeechobee County. I won with 44 percent of the vote,” he said.

“At the prior forum, I spoke about my experience, my honor and my integrity. I provided I had practiced law for 30 years in 25 different areas.”

He said his extensive trial and bench trial experience is also essential for managing a courtroom.

“My experience also includes appearing before the Florida Supreme Court, the Fourth District Court of Appeal, the Ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 15th, 17th, 19th and 20th Judicial Circuits in the State of Florida.

“I have also practiced in many, numerous county courts throughout the state of Florida.

“I am duly admitted to the United States Court, Middle District, Souther District for approximately 30 years.

“I am a Florida Supreme Court board-certified mediator for the past 22 years, handling cases, as well as serving as a guardian ad litem representing children and the disabled here in our community and across the State of Florida.

“My honors include being named in the top 1 percent of America’s most honored professionals in the Who’s Who of the Business Executives.

“I received approximately 30 prestigious awards for my ethics, my legal abilities and my business practices, very contrary to the prior remarks.

“I am the only candidate that is AV rated by Martin dale Hubble. Martindale Hubble is the gold rating standard for rating lawyers since 1868. I am AV rated by my peers and the judiciary. I have had this rating for 20 years.

He explained that the rating takes into consideration five categories: legal knowledge, analytical ability, legal experience, communication ability and judgment. The highest rating is AV.

Mr. Wallace read endorsements from three of the judge candidates he defeated in the primary.

“I believe that I have the experience, knowledge and temperament to be the next Okeechobee County Court judge,” Mr. Wallace said.

“I will continue to support drug and mental health court.

“I will also the continuation of teen court.

“I would like to see the establishment of veteran court.

“I pledge to follow the law while treating all parties with dignity and respect.”

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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