Susan Clark Armstrong: Getting the Goods on the Sheriff

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.” A watchdog for Clay County, Florida, Folio Weekly reporter Susan Clark Armstrong took notice when she saw public officials riding around town in nearly brand-new cars during a budget crunch and sheriff’s deputies spending on-the-clock time at charitable galas.

This led her to uncover a much grander scandal involving Sheriff Scott Lancaster’s extravagant use of taxpayer money over a period of more than 10 years.

A Louisiana-born woman with a gentle accent, Armstrong seems more likely to make the sheriff some sweet tea than to accuse him of misusing taxpayers’ money.  But her voice gets feisty when she talks about battling with the sheriff’s public information coordinator, Mary Justino, and dealing with denied information requests in her search for the sheriff’s credit card records.

After some finagling, Armstrong obtained records detailing thousands of dollars of personal spending on county credit cards, including plane tickets for the sheriff’s girlfriend, clothing and underwear. Most of it apparently had not been repaid.  The sheriff had also purchased numerous vehicles at inflated prices from a friend and then loaned them out to friends in other departments, Armstrong discovered.  In addition, he required on-duty officers to chauffeur his mother around town, according to deputies.

After Armstrong’s story "Booty Call" was published in Folio Weekly, Sheriff Lancaster called a press conference to deny any misconduct.  But the article did get the ball rolling, and an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement ended in a grand jury being called.  Though the jury just "smacked him on the wrist," according to Armstrong, "Booty Call" and other follow-up stories angered the public. In the Republican primary election later that year, Lancaster lost, getting only 34 percent of the vote. 

Here, Armstrong recounts how she managed to expose an ongoing scandal and bring down a good-ol’-boy sheriff.

How did this story evolve from a look into the distribution of county vehicles to a much bigger investigation of Sheriff Lancaster’s spending? 

After I started focusing on the Sheriff’s Department, a lot of the officers came forward and told me things that were happening — that the sheriff just seemed to be having a good time on the county’s money. 

Then when I was asking the sheriff’s public information officer about cars and other spending, I noticed that she was trying to stall and was not at all being cooperative and at times was a little testy with me.  So I waited until she was on vacation and I went in. I had already asked where the credit card information was so I knew exactly which drawer it was in and how long it would take to retrieve the records, which was only like three minutes. I told the employees in the sheriff’s office I wanted to look for some other information, and I said, "Oh, by the way, I’d like to see the credit card information. I know you have that here, and I know it will only take a few minutes to get it." 

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. They did give the records to me right away, and I started looking through them, and I actually could not believe that the sheriff could be that stupid.   

It seems as if the spending issues were so out in the open.

I guess nobody there ever questioned Lancaster on it. He’d been the sheriff since ’93, and he kind of ruled supreme.

You said some of the deputies came forward at the start. Were they helpful throughout the investigation?

They were very helpful. I would say I spoke with 25 percent of the sheriff’s office, and another 25 to 30 percent was passing information through that initial 25 percent. There were a lot of issues in the sheriff’s department; the men were extremely unhappy.

You dealt with the sheriff office’s public information coordinator, Mary Justino, a lot.  What was it like going through her and not actually being able to talk to the sheriff?

I didn’t really expect the sheriff to talk with me because what he was doing was so blatant. But I was surprised that his public information officer would go as far as she did to protect him.

I’d ask for proof that he repaid personal expenses charged to county credit cards, and she would give me little sticky notes and handwritten things that said, "Paid so much on this date," which didn’t even come close to equaling the amount he spent on the credit card. I would say, "I’m sorry, as a journalist, I can’t really accept sticky notes and handwritten notes as proof that he paid that back, and I’d like to see the checks." So she gave me a couple checks. I think one of them was like $600 and another was $50, and he had charged thousands and thousands in what looked like personal usage.

It got to the point where we kind of got into a pissing contest. I would say, "Okay, he bought this underwear. Could you show me where this serves a public purpose?"  

You ended up with some really damning allegations against the sheriff. How did you go about fact-checking to make sure they were all correct? 

The grand jury that was called after the story appeared didn’t say there were a lot of things that weren’t facts. It was just, "Okay, the sheriff’s deputies were driving his mother around, but that’s no big deal, and he was ordering his people to work for all these charities during work hours, but it doesn’t matter." But I had been hearing that the sheriff’s mother was ill, and he was having his officers drive her around, so I said, "You know, next time you drive her around, let me know." So they did.  

Everything that I wrote in the paper, I either saw, or I had absolute proof that the sheriff was doing it. A lot of times I had written proof, and I never used one source: It was five or six, and I told my editor, Anne Schindler, every one of those, their names and written statements and things like that. I never went forward with anything that I didn’t have absolute proof of.  

How did other media in your area cover the story? 

Folio Weekly's winning cover story
Folio Weekly’s winning cover story

One day I was working out in my yard, and Anne called me and said, "I understand Lancaster is having a press conference." So I went right over and was standing in the back of the room. The sheriff had "Booty Call," and he was holding it up, and he said the story was nothing but a pack of lies, and he did use the credit cards, but he paid it all back. 

Then he picked up this stack of papers and said he had all the checks to prove it. So I thought surely someone’s going to say, "Well, can we see them?” Nobody said anything. So I just stepped forward — I’m about 5’1 and 3/4" — and I said in a very nice way, "Sheriff Lancaster, could we see those checks?", because from what I could see, it just looked like pieces of paper. 

He whirled on me, and he yelled right in front of those cameras, "No!" So the media just kind of whirled on me, and I said, "Please don’t take my picture, I don’t even have any makeup on." I mean, I tried to stay out of the limelight because I am not an in-front-of-the-camera type person. From then on, it was like the media were playing him against me. Instead of focusing on what he had actually done, the focus was kind of on what I was doing to push this story. 

Do you think that writing for an alt-weekly gave you more liberties than these other papers would have given you? 

Oh, absolutely. No doubt about it.  ‘Cause when I was writing for the daily newspaper here, the Florida Times-Union, if an expose was about somebody who was a good friend of the mayor or whatever, I felt they just wouldn’t run it because of the advertising dollars, and they would cut everything to where it was just a milquetoast article instead of something hard-hitting. At the daily, I had all this information that was just languishing. 

So I think, number one, I have had two editors at Folio that have had more guts than the whole Times-Union staff or the staff of any large daily paper that I have met.  Number two, the space allotment is much better, and we’re not so dependent on local politicians.  

I liked the way that you set up your story by using bullet points to itemize the sheriff’s offenses, basically outlining the story for the reader right from the get-go. Is that a way that you normally write, and how do you think that helped you tell your story? 

Actually, I use a lot of bullet points because that’s the way Anne likes it.  I put the main points into bullets, and when she edited it, she tightened them up.  She told me, "Give me everything you got in 8,000 words," and, of course, I gave her everything I had in 16,000 words. It was just too much. She did very well in cutting it down. She’s absolutely phenomenal.   

A lot of Lancaster’s offenses could have been made fun of, but you avoided taking cheap shots and let the facts speak for themselves.  

I am always nice and respectful to people — although I did poke a little bit of fun at him about buying the underwear.  You know, being from the South, I always try to write in a genteel manner — and when I don’t succeed, Anne is always there to save me from myself.  

Lindsay Kishter is a junior at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She interned at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for the summer.

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