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CRYSTAL RIVER — The State Attorney’s Office is investigating claims by a Floral City man that attorney Bill Grant offered him financial incentives to run for the state House of Representatives as a spoiler to draw votes from Nancy Argenziano.
Jim Brunswick, who twice has had unsuccessful runs for Citrus County Commission, said he rejected Grant’s offer and later was told by state Rep. Jimmie T. Smith, the incumbent in the race, they had found someone else to run instead.
That other person was Robert Goocher, a 28-year-old auto mechanic who works for his father’s business in Inverness. Goocher, who did not campaign publicly, finished second in the Democratic primary with 28 percent of the vote. Records show he did not vote in the primary.
Assistant state attorney Mark Simpson said he met Aug. 13 with Brunswick, who detailed the allegations. Simpson also said he subpoenaed Goocher to his office for an interview. He declined to say whether subpoenas have been issued to Grant, Smith or others.
Grant, through Dade City attorney A.R. “Chip” Mander, denied any wrongdoing.
“We dispute everything that man said, and we’re confident there won’t be any charges filed,” Mander said. “We’re prepared to fight it to the bitter end.”
Smith, a first-term legislator, issued a statement.
“At no time have I, or my campaign, interfered with the Democrats’ selection of a candidate in the race for the state House,” Smith wrote. “Nor have I asked anyone, at any time, to interfere with the Democrats’ primary.”
The state House District 34 race has been shrouded in mystery from the start.
Democrat Lynn Dostal announced plans in the spring to drop from the race after Argenziano, running as an Independent, filed for office. Goocher entered the race in May, prompting both Argenziano and Dostal to declare him a “shill” for the Republican Party, designed solely to draw votes from Argenziano in a three-candidate race.
Dostal re-entered the race and easily won the primary. He then dropped from the race, leaving only Argenziano and Smith on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Goocher’s mother rents store space from Grant, an Inverness attorney who represents the Citrus County Hospital Board and is a significant contributor to Smith’s campaign. Goocher’s father, Robert Alan Goocher, is one of Grant’s clients.
Grant recommended the elder Goocher for a governor-appointed vacancy on the hospital board. Smith sent the recommendation to Gov. Rick Scott; however, according to Smith, he didn’t realize Goocher’s name was included with four others until a reporter told him last week.
Smith alluded to that recommendation in his Thursday statement:
“Furthermore, any advancement of people for gubernatorial appointments was done with one goal: ensuring the governor had a list of highly qualified people to consider when filling positions important to our community. Period.”
Argenziano, a former state representative and senator from Citrus County, had a press conference late Wednesday afternoon to provide a forum for Brunswick to make his claims.
Brunswick said Grant called him in April and asked him to run for state House. He said he told Grant that he supported Smith in 2010. He said Grant told him his role would be not to win, but to draw votes from Argenziano.
Brunswick said he told Grant campaigns are costly and he didn’t have any money. He claimed Grant told him: “You will be taken care of, Jim.”
Simpson acknowledged Brunswick told him the same thing.
Brunswick said Grant wanted to meet the next week for lunch to discuss the details. Brunswick said he didn’t call Grant back, but called his office a month later and a staffer said Grant was out of the country.
Brunswick said he then called Smith, who said “they had secured another guy, who was young and had a ‘clean’ record.”
Simpson said Brunswick related the same information to him.
Simpson said the legal issue is whether Grant offered financial incentives other than full backing of a Brunswick campaign. He said the case turns criminal if Grant offered to provide a monetary gain for Brunswick to run for office.
“That’s what we’re looking at,” Simpson said.
Argenziano said the FBI is also involved in the case. Simpson declined to comment.
Argenziano said she told Simpson she planned to take Brunswick’s claims public. Simpson said he neither supported nor discouraged her from doing that.
“I basically told her we like to keep investigations close to the vest,” he said. “Obviously I could not make her not talk to the press. I told her to use her best judgment.”
Argenziano said she wanted the allegations exposed now because the investigation may not conclude until after the election.
Mander, Grant’s attorney, said that shows politics is behind the allegations.
“The political nature is pretty evident,” he said.
Brunswick has history with Grant. He hired Grant in 2010 to defend him in a mortgage foreclosure lawsuit, and then Grant withdrew in December 2011. Brunswick said Grant claimed Brunswick owed him $2,600 and would not continue as his attorney without the payment.
Brunswick said there is no connection between the lawsuit and his allegations against Grant.
Chronicle reporter Mike Wright can be reached at 352-563-3228 or email@example.com.