Interview with Jeff Ashton – Candidate for Orange-Osceola County State Attorney
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: July 27, 2012
WONO: As you have campaigned, you have talked a lot about the low morale in the State Attorney’s office and generally the culture of the office. Mr. Lamar has said that morale is high. Who is correct? And if elected, what will you do to change this?
Jeff Ashton: I believe that having left that office a year ago, and still being in communication with a lot of the people there, I think I can say that morale is extremely poor. I think if you talk to people that recently left the office, they will tell you the same thing. Lawyers like to feel that they are respected – they like to feel that they are appreciated and the bureaucracy that Mr. Lamar has created really prevents that. People don’t feel like they are trusted; they don’t feel as if they are respected. So, morale is a problem. Obviously morale is in the eye of the beholder, so I guess Mr. Lamar has a different opinion. The change that I am going to make to improve that, basically, is to start showing lawyers that I trust them to make judgments. We need to train them to make good judgments and then allow them to make those judgments. We also need to work with them as they are making those judgments and help them make the right decisions. Ultimately, I think, you have to trust the people that work for you, and that goes a long way, I think, in improving morale.
WONO: Over-charging of crimes has been an issue in the campaign. You have said that many cases are dismissed by judges even before they get to a jury. Why is this occurring? How will you go about preventing this from happening?
Jeff Ashton: The difficulty is that this office is charging cases that do not meet the required elements of a crime. The example that I raised was the Malcolm Thompson case in Osceola County, where they tried the Clerk of Court there for an accusation of an assault. And while Mr. Thompson’s conduct may have been bullying or may have been offensive in some way, it was not a crime, and that is what Judge Perry ultimately determined, having looked at the facts. It is something that a good prosecutor should know. The elements of a crime are not that mysterious. If we are repeatedly presenting cases to judges and they are dropping them because of an absolute absence of proof, it just shows that the prosecutor isn’t doing his job; he or she should know that.
WONO: Much has been written about racial disparity in the criminal justice system and Orange County is no exception to this. As a practitioner and someone likely to be the State Attorney, how would you go about addressing this bias at various points in the system — pre-trial, prosecution, probation etc.?
Jeff Ashton: I think the biggest answer is involving people in all communities and being open to communicating with them. The problems that plague all of our various communities are best solved by a partnership between law enforcement and the communities themselves. I think that’s the thing most lacking here. In fact, it was lacking in Sanford – that recent mess up there occurred because there was no line of communication between the State Attorney’s office and the African American community. In the absence of that communication, people become distrustful and problems get worse. I do think that one of the keys is working with leaders in the African American or Hispanic community to solve problems and to help identify solutions together, through communication. Throwing people in prison is not the only answer. We need to be innovative and we need to be involved with the people.
WONO: Your opponent and incumbent Mr. Lamar has repeatedly said you are soft on crime, but he is not. Are you soft on crime?
Jeff Ashton: No! You know, all you have to do is look at my record as a prosecutor. I have aggressively prosecuted hundreds of cases. I have put hundreds of people in prison that deserved it. I’ve put 12 people on death row because they deserved it. So, to say I’m soft on crime is the one argument that Mr. Lamar makes that is the most ridiculous of all.
WONO: Let’s talk about the juvenile justice system. Some have said that the procedures and guidelines are not well established. Are the practices in the juvenile justice system arbitrary? If so, what can be done about this?
Mr. Ashton: Well I think that the key to the juvenile justice system is to understand what is its purpose – sort of rehabilitative and restorative. In the juvenile justice system we must understand that children do things because of their youth and because of their lack of maturity and we must try to find ways to correct that behavior, without stigmatizing them for life. Obviously, what someone does as a child doesn’t necessarily reflect what kind of person they will be as an adult. I think that is the key to the juvenile system, to always have that attitude in mind.
WONO: You have said if elected, you can keep communities safer than is currently the case. How would you do this?
Jeff Ashton: I think the thing that needs to be done differently is, most of all, we need to focus our resources with an eye toward what will make our community safest. Every decision we make should have, as its base, ‘What is the best thing I can do, in this case, for the community?’ Sometimes, with a particular defendant, as I said before, that might be restorative – how can I get this person back on track to not commit this crime again. In others, particularly violent cases, you have to concentrate your resources on taking that person off the street and making sure they cannot hurt anyone again. So, it’s a matter of focusing on your main goal and that is, keeping the community safe.
WONO: You and your opponent have very different leadership styles. You have said the State Attorney needs to be in court prosecuting cases. Mr. Lamar says, there isn’t time for this. With an office of hundreds of attorneys and support staff, would you really have time to prosecute cases in court? Why is it so important for the State Attorney himself to prosecute cases?
Jeff Ashton: First of all, Mr. Lamar has time. He isn’t a hands-on manager; he has twelve managers beneath him. So, his claim that he doesn’t have time, I just don’t think rings true. You have to make it a priority, though, as being in the courtroom is important. Now, the State Attorney shouldn’t be in the courtroom all the time, of course not. But, it is important that the State Attorney spends enough time in the courtroom to understand, first of all, what is going on in his office. You have to be down there, in the trenches, at least some of the time to understand what’s working, what’s not working, what kind of cases are we succeeding in, what kind are we failing in and generally, to understand how attorneys are doing. You must have some first-hand knowledge of that. I also think that, for the morale of the team, the State Attorney needs to show all the assistants that you can still do the work and you are willing to get in there, roll up your sleeves and do the job that you ask them to do. There are a number of State Attorneys in the state of Florida, that do their own cases. It isn’t, like, every State Attorney is so busy they can’t try cases. That’s Mr. Lamar’s choice; it’s not something that is forced on him because of circumstances.
WONO: It has been reported and your opponent has said you have poor management skills. How do you respond to those accusations? And if true, how would you go about remedying this, if elected.
Jeff Ashton: There is really no basis for that. If you, or anyone, would like to, you can pull my personnel file, because there is an evaluation by one of Mr. Lamar’s Bureau Chiefs who is still there. She evaluated my performance while I was the manager in that office and it was very complimentary. I don’t know why he makes that claim because, his own people disagree. I chose to leave management, in that office, because I didn’t like the way that management worked. I didn’t want to be a part of that process, so I voluntarily left to go back into the court room.
WONO: Community prosecution – a relatively new concept – is being undertaken in some cities across the U.S. You have said you would like to engage communities and get their input. What’s your view on community prosecution? Is this something you will look at if elected?
Jeff Ashton: Absolutely. One of the hallmarks of my career has always been innovation. I’ve always been the kind of person looking for a better way to do things. I am very excited about the possibility of looking at how other communities handle these issues, because I think there are solutions out there. We just need to be open-minded enough to look, see what works, and see what will work in this community.
WONO: Many Florida politicians take the Hispanic and African-American vote for granted, particularly here in Orange County. How have you reached out to these communities and have you reached out to minority-owned media?
Jeff Ashton: I have attempted to speak to community leaders in all the different minority communities, in order to get a dialog going. My biggest hope is that we open lines of communication – that people will be able to call me, I will be able to call them, and we will be able to get things done together. I do think you are right, particularly here in Orange County, my opponent has always taken the minority communities for granted. I don’t think he’s ever really spent time reaching out to folks and listening to their concerns. I think that those communities are eager to have somebody in the State Attorney’s office that they can actually interface with and talk to.
WONO: Are there ongoing relationships with other State Attorney’s offices across the state? Do you have an opportunity to share experiences, new ideas on what’s working, what’s not, on a periodic basis?
Jeff Ashton: Absolutely. I have a close personal relationship, already, with two of the State Attorneys in Florida, just from my history of having been a prosecutor and I am looking forward to developing relationships with all of them. I think it is essential, again, that we always keep an open mind to things that work. One of the things I plan on doing, assuming I am fortunate enough to be elected, I am going to spend this fall visiting a lot of the State Attorney’s offices, and stealing some good ideas from them.
WONO: In the live television debate, you made reference to your opponent collecting $500,000 and now a salary and pension. Is this double dipping? Triple dipping? How does that work?
Jeff Ashton: I think people have called it several of those names. There’s a system in place, in Florida, that allows state employees, when they are near their age or term of retirement, to go into a program that basically continues to pay their salary, but puts their pension into an investment account for five years. Basically, they are getting their pension and their salary for five years and then the idea is, at the end of the five years, when they actually do terminate employment, they get that nice big lump sum and they go off and enjoy their retirement. Unfortunately, the legislators created a loop-hole in that law, so that elected officials could go through that process, but not quit. In other words, they could, basically, get that huge chunk of money and then keep working. That is what Mr. Lamar did, so that’s the half-million dollars that we talked about. Basically, he is drawing a salary, he is drawing a pension, he is drawing Social Security, and he had this half-million dollar windfall back in 2005.
WONO: Is that still the case today?
Jeff Ashton: Well, they changed the law now, so that you cannot get that money and keep working. The way the law is now, when you go into that program, you can work for five more years, but then once those five years are up, you have to leave. You can, if you are out of the government service for one year, possibly come back. Now, when I was finishing the Anthony case, I had done 30 years, and I did the DROP retirement program for about six months, and then left, and of course, I’ve been gone ever since. Mr. Lamar got a half-million dollars, I got about $39,000 for the little bit of time I was in there to finish the Anthony case. I think the issue a lot of people have is, while what you did may have been legal, its not really appropriate since you didn’t actually leave, like you were supposed to, but continued working.
WONO: Mr. Ashton, how is your campaign going? Will we be seeing Jeff Ashton as the new Orange-Osceola State Attorney?
Jeff Ashton: The campaign is going very, very well. We have received some wonderful endorsements. We just, yesterday, received a formal endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents all of the deputies and police officers of the Sheriff’s office, Orlando Police Department and Corrections. So, it’s going very, very well. We are looking forward to the election in about 18 days.
WONO: Final question: Why should voters vote for Jeff Ashton?
Jeff Ashton: I think voters should vote for Jeff Ashton because they want the best representation possible in the courts of Orange and Osceola County, when they are a victim. I think that’s the biggest difference between my opponent and me. I think people deserve the best they can get from the prosecutors that prosecute their case. I don’t believe they are getting that now. I think I’ve shown that I can give them that.
WONO: Mr. Ashton, thank you for your time.
Jeff Ashton: Thank you, too.
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