Pensacola, Florida
Saturday August 24th 2019

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Public Trust Unit Launched

Public Trust Unit Launched
By Rick Outzen

U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe has put public officials in the Florida Panhandle on notice. He has launched an anti-corruption unit that will focus on “identifying, investigating, disrupting and prosecuting government corruption.”

Keefe made the announcement on Tuesday, Aug. 6, after Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox pled guilty to three fraud charges in a “pay-to-play” bribery probe. Maddox, who unsuccessfully ran for Commissioner of Agriculture in 2010, faces a maximum of 45 years behind bars and $750,000 in fines.

“That very small group that serves for their own illegal benefit or profit, and those who illegally seek to influence them, will be the targets of our work in the Public Trust Unit,” Keefe told the media outside of the federal courthouse in Tallahassee.

Two days later, the U.S. attorney held a meet and greet with local media in the conference room of his Pensacola Division office. Inweekly asked him to further explain his new unit.

“The Public Trust Unit basically has three components, two of which are probably the most notable or of most interest,” he said. “One is public corruption. It’s my view that this office needs to do more with regard to the issue of public corruption.”

He pointed out that Florida is the third-largest state population-wise in the country and is a pivotal state in national elections.

“Every election cycle, there are dramas, issues, concerns, controversies, things that cumulatively over time, in my view, and the policy of this office and Department of Justice is such that election security is a priority,” said Keefe. “It’s a very important thing to make certain that the public continues to have trust in the integrity of the election system.”

He added, “There’s fundamental constitutional rights with regard to making certain that elections are fair and that an equal vote is an equal vote.”

Keefe explained that the special counsel’s report mentioned that “foreign actors” focused on Florida during the election cycle of 2016.

“I want to make certain that this office is doing everything that the Department of Justice would have us do to be proactive, to be out front on the election security issues,” he said. “I don’t want this office to wait until after the election, if there was anything that could be done before the election, to deal with investigation and prosecution. If there is any inappropriate activity going on with regard to election and security between now and the election, I want us to be proactive and engage and disrupt that activity.”

The third area of concern for the Public Trust Unit is economic espionage committed by the Republic of China, especially at universities. The Northern District of Florida contains the University of Florida, Florida State University, Florida A&M University and the University of West Florida.

He said, “Coming into this office in January, did I have general awareness that there was this problem with regard to economic espionage, to trade secret theft and misappropriation, by the People’s Republic of China communist government? I didn’t. It was an abstraction; it was in faraway places. Certainly, it wouldn’t be something right here in North Florida.”

Keefe said in the last few months, he’s learned about threats to national security that involved China and economic espionage in his district.

“Sheriffs and police departments and state and local folks are not geared or focused on dealing with (threats to national security),” he said. “And where that is going to be dealt with is at a main justice in Washington but also in the 94 districts with the 93 U.S. attorneys that are the ones that are dealing with the universities that apply and are situated in your districts. So I want you all to know so that the public knows that this is a problem.”

Keefe sidestepped rolling out many particulars about the new unit. The other reporters wanted to discuss Mayor Grover Robinson’s joint gun-related crime task forces, which the U.S. attorney called “Protect Pensacola.” Few of them understood the history of public corruption in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and the other 20 counties in Northern Florida.

Keefe does. He grew up in Okaloosa County, graduated from Choctawhatchee High School and attended the University of Florida on a football scholarship. He has practiced law in Florida for 32 years and was a partner of the Fort Walton Beach law firm Keefe, Anchors & Gordon.

“What I’d hoped to do today was largely just kind of introduce the Public Trust Unit,” he said. “It has attorneys in it that have the national security component, like David (Goldberg) leads and is involved in. It’s got public corruption folks and some very bright young folks that are very knowledgeable about election security.”

Keefe touched on election security again before he answered more questions for the rest of the media on the task force.

“Election security is a relatively new thing in the Department of Justice,” he said. The federal government doesn’t run the elections. Elected supervisors of election in counties all over the country are in charge of counting votes. However, a new element was introduced to the election process four years ago.

“You’ve got the cyber component tied to this now,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to do with non-cyber hanging chads and so forth like we had in 2000. Now, you have issues that have to do with whether people who are legally qualified voters are on voting rolls and are voting or are registering to vote–and the extent to which there is a role for the federal government, what will the federal government’s role be in that instance? Or will that be totally left to the state and local folks to deal with?”

He continued, “These are cutting-edge issues in our Public Trust Unit. We have young lawyers working with really smart, bright lawyers at main justice to figure out—because the 2020 elections are around the corner—how to get out ahead of that to know what our role will be.”

Keefe stressed that the DOJ wants to secure our elections and the integrity of the voting infrastructure but also secure the public’s perception.

“If the public perceives that it is not solid, it’s not sound, that can be as damaging or bad as if, in fact, there is vulnerability,” he said, “the public perception that they are not secure can be more dangerous than if they, in fact, are not. And so the key is to engage proactively ahead of time that, whatever the federal role is properly defined to be, to the extent things can be communicated and made public about that balance with the classification of certain things.”

Keefe closed the discussion, “That’s my job. That’s part of the Public Trust Unit—election security, public corruption and the economic espionage in university campuses. And once again, this is not to diminish gun violence, drugs, human trafficking, child pornography, elder abuse issues. The priorities of the Department of Justice are always going to be with us, but these are three areas where I think a lot of strides could be made that we’re focusing on with this Public Trust Unit.”