Vendor says Brown-Waite sought work for husband
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
BROOKSVILLE -- Kirk Wilson had a successful vending business in 1998, serving major clients throughout Hernando County. Then he began to get troubling phone calls.
"I was literally told by people, 'You have to move your machines,' " said Wilson, who owned Gulf Vending. "They said, 'We don't have a choice. You have to move your machines.' I didn't understand it."
Soda and candy machines owned by Harvey Waite, husband of state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, were installed where Gulf Vending machines once stood.
Wilson contends that Brown-Waite, a Brooksville Republican now in a tight race in Florida's closely watched 5th U.S. Congressional District, used her position to help her husband's business -- and hurt his. Internal Revenue Service records show he lost about $200,000 in business in 1998.
After repeated attempts to reach Brown-Waite on Wednesday, she responded hours later by e-mail.
"These accusations are absolutely false and baseless," Brown-Waite said. "This is a last-minute dirty trick by a disgruntled former employee, a self-described 'longtime friend' of (incumbent 5th District U.S. Rep. Karen) Thurman, and a vindictive ex-business competitor and Thurman campaign contributor.
"I am disappointed these individuals and the Thurman campaign are resorting to smear tactics and lies in the final days before an election in an attempt to shift the focus away from the issues that Florida voters care about."
But retired Hernando County Sheriff Tom Mylander and former Brown-Waite senior legislative aide Beth Shields both back Wilson's claim, which he brought to the Times on Wednesday.
Shields left Brown-Waite's employ in May 2000 after eight years, tendering her resignation with an open-ended date, but getting immediately dismissed. Mylander recently has clashed with Brown-Waite and publicly supported Thurman, the incumbent Democrat from Dunnellon.
Like Brown-Waite, all three making these claims are Republicans.
Shields said she attended a meeting where Brown-Waite -- then chairwoman of the state Senate Health Care Committee -- told Florida Hospital Association lobbyist Barbara Foley that Brown-Waite wanted to talk about getting her husband's machines in local hospitals. Foley, no longer with the hospital group, could not be reached Wednesday.
Mylander said Brown-Waite also came to him and his chief deputy, Shields' husband, Don, urging the Sheriff's Office to switch to her husband's business, Hungry Harv's vending service. Mylander refused.
Brown-Waite "gave the impression it would be in your best interest to do this," said Mylander, who has publicly supported Thurman.
Thurman said she knew nothing about the allegations against Brown-Waite.
"If it's true, it's very disturbing," she said.
Thurman recently declined to press a case against Brown-Waite's husband, Harvey Waite, who was caught by Hernando deputies earlier this month stealing and vandalizing Thurman campaign signs.
Waite and Brown-Waite have since apologized, but local prosecutors are still considering whether to press criminal charges against Waite.
Wilson's concerns about his vending business began in 1998.
When he lost deals with Oak Hill Hospital, Brooksville Regional Hospital, the privately operated county jail and other big accounts, Wilson said he was baffled.
Brooksville Regional CEO Tom Barb said his hospital switched in early 1999, but didn't know of any pressure.
Oak Hill CEO Jaime Wesolowski said his hospital moved to Hungry Harv's in 1998 on the recommendation of another soda vendor. He said the change was not a result of pressure.
Details about the contract with Corrections Corp. of America, which runs the Hernando County Jail, were unclear late Wednesday.
Told that Brown-Waite might have been behind his lost business, Wilson said, he considered a complaint with the Florida Ethics Commission. But he said he decided not to risk it, fearing Brown-Waite might harm his business further.
So Wilson did nothing.
Only this September, after selling Gulf Vending, did he rethink it. He found what he considered credible people to back him, and this week went to the Ethics Commission. But he said he could not file the complaint in time for it to be heard before Election Day.
He said the campaign sign incident, and his concern over Brown-Waite's credibility, renewed his interest.
"It's a passion," said Wilson, who donated money to Thurman's campaign. "Where is the credibility to use her office for personal gain? And if she's going to Washington, that just shouldn't happen. It isn't right."
Mylander questioned Brown-Waite's ethics for allowing the perception that she used her position to help her husband's company.
"It was very obvious she was trying to make sure she drummed up business for him," Mylander said.
The current sheriff, Richard Nugent, said Brown-Waite has not approached him on her husband's behalf since he took office. He noted that Brown-Waite quietly backed his Democratic opponent in 2000.
Mylander said he disdained Brown-Waite's operating style.
"I've told people within the party that was the reason why I wasn't supporting her, because of things like this."
Shields, Brown-Waite's former aide, wasn't surprised at Brown-Waite's reaction to the accusations.
"People who have dealt with her on a personal basis know what she is like," Shields said. "What you see is not what you get."
"I am a staunch Republican," she said. "But I am voting for Karen Thurman, and I didn't think that day would ever come."
For her part, Brown-Waite characterized the accusations as desperate.
"This is a despicable act by a desperate campaign," she said. "The people of Florida will not stand for these lies."
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