Over the weekend State Attorney Jeff Ashton called a bizarre press conference to answer allegations by self-described “political operative” Jacob Engels at the East Orlando Post, that he maintained an account with the now-infamous Ashley Madison spouse-cheating website. The presser looked slap-dash and just plain sad, and can be found here. Predictably everyone has been focusing on Ashton. But the bigger story might be how Engels came upon the information he published. I believe the whole sordid mess is the result of a frat boy feud.
First the saucy Ashton stuff.
Jeff Ashton rose to fame for unsuccessfully prosecuting Casey Anthony for murder in a nationally sensationalized 2011 trial in Orlando. My thoughts on this are in the minority, probably because I didn’t catch any of the pre-trial hype. Instead, I tuned into the opening statements and got hooked, following the trial every day, and peppering my lawyer husband with legal questions at night.
At the end of it, I emerged not the biggest fan of Jeff Ashton. There were gaping holes in the evidence including a lack of motive and no cause of death. I sensed that, as lead prosecutor, Ashton tried to compensate for the lack of a case by employing a slut-shaming strategy that focused on a stinking pile of innuendo. The accused was a party girl who didn’t have a job. She went out dancing, got a tattoo, slept over at her boyfriend’s apartment, and hung out with kids at all hours of the night while her child was missing. Casey Anthony was a hot mess. But none of these things were evidence of child murder. To me the weird facts surrounding her life just raised questions about her mental and emotional state. The jury must have agreed on some level, as they voted to acquit.
Despite failing to get the jury onboard with his “party girl must have killed her child” prosecutorial strategy, with the help of Nancy Grace and the non-stop local media drumbeat, Ashton rode into office on a wave of contempt for the woman. He, as a paragon of virtue, would save our community from the moral decay she had brought upon us.
Jeff Ashton should be glad that behaving in a promiscuous manner isn’t a capital crime. It’s not anyone’s business what anyone does in their personal life. But, when you build a career in public service by climbing way up on your moral high horse, don’t be surprised when you bruise your ass falling off.
Having an Ashley Madison account, or any other sort of adult play date scheduling organizer isn’t a crime, but it’s one hell of a liability. Our State Attorney handles high profile, politically-charged cases and therefore is open to coercion, and even blackmail. I hope, for the sake of all involved, that this is the last we hear of this.
However, from the very beginning, something about Engels’ “breaking news event” didn’t smell right. How is it that the little East Orlando Post was able to magically pull Jeff Ashton’s name out of 32 million users in the massive Ashley Madison hacking dump? As of Sunday, the only way to pinpoint a person in the Ashley Madison database — outside of employing a forensic analyst — would seem to be knowing the username and the email address of a particular person. Interestingly, the one question most asked at the press conference — and consistently refused by Ashton — was “What email address did you use?”
The EOP archives reveal that Jacob Engels has been throwing hissies about the State Attorney since his investigation into the bribery scandal Orlando Expressway Authority. See here, here and especially here. It’s evident in these articles that Engels has a special fealty to former conservative State Representative Chris Dorworth, in whose defense he hilariously invokes the anti-Nazi Niemoller quote (“First they came for the communists…”) when Ashton’s office charged him in connection with the Expressway bribery scandal. While others agreed the way the case was brought — charging a private citizen with violations of the Sunshine Law — was a stretch, Engles’ furious, Nazi-invoking defense spoke of a loyalty to Dorworth so intense as to border on fanaticism.
Dorworth successfully got the charges dropped before being ousted by Democrat and firefighter Mike Clelland in 2012. He then went to work for Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm that represents US Sugar among other clients.
A search for stories on the East Orlando Post reflecting US Sugar interests returns results that stretch for two pages, all with an anti-environmental slant. Direct your attention to this story to get a sense of extent of the political water carrying: DIRTY MONEY – How The Everglades Foundation Funds Shadowy Environmental Groups. The tone evokes levels of screaming issue bias reminiscent of climate change denialist screeds. In short, much of what EOP’s “political operative” editor publishes feels like straight-from-the-lobbyist public relations efforts.
By way of supporting Dorworth, Engels writes of the “terrifying activities” commencing once the Democrat Ashton was elected as State Attorney, and spins conspiratorial yarns that would make Alex Jones take pause. For example, as the Expressway Authority scandal was gaining traction, he writes: “This weekend, I floated my thesis about the advent of political prosecution coming from primarily Democratic prosecutors against Republican politicians.” He continues, “Republican Presidential Contenders Scott Walker, Chris Christe (sic) and now Scott Walker have all faced politically motivated investigations and in some case indictments in their respective states…I was unable to find a single example of the reverse: of a conservative or even just a Republican prosecutor taking a liberal or democratic politician to indictment or investigation.”
Engels is so sure that there are no examples of conservative Republicans conducting political prosecutions that he invites the reader to provide links so he can “present all sides fairly.”
Off the top of my head, here’s some examples of Republicans using the justice system as a political cudgel. First, there’s the entire Hillary Clinton portfolio from Whitewater to Benghazi. There’s the U.S. Attorneys Scandal of the George W. Bush Administration, which involved the criminalization of protecting the voting rights of low-income and minority communities. Let’s not forget former Democratic Alabama Governor Don Siegelman who is serving a six and a half year sentence as the result of a political witch hunt orchestrated by Karl Rove. Then, there’s this story about a blogger jailed in Alabama for writing about the affair of a prominent Republican. I could go on and on. These are examples of what politically motivated prosecutions by Republicans against Democrats look like, and they don’t resemble what Jeff Ashton did in the Expressway bribery prosecution.
Given all this, it may be fair to ask if Dorworth or others among Ashton’s political enemies facilitated the Ashton/Ashley Madison material.
With Engels acting as a mouthpiece for a high-level coterie of frat boys, the Jeff Ashton / Ashley Madison affair can best be understood as political revenge for the State Attorney doing his job. And that, I believe, is the real story no one is talking about.