As the clock winds down on a number of hotly contested primary campaigns this cycle, there is no better time to introduce a new feature at The Capitolist, which I’m calling “The Capitolist Court.” This will serve as our fact-checking feature where we examine the truth and substance of claims made by public figures, elected officials, third party electioneering groups, and others who actively engage in the political arena. If PolitiFact can do it, I can too.
To kick off the inaugural edition, we’ve got three similar cases on the docket, all relating to residency claims against three different Republican candidates: Katherine Van Zant (House District 19 candidate), Representative Debbie Mayfield (candidate for Senate District 17), and Representative Mike Hill (candidate for Senate District 1). All three stand accused of claiming their official residency in places that allegedly violate Florida’s homestead tax exemption law, and / or the Florida Legislature’s Joint Rule 7.1 which states:
(1) A member shall be a legal resident and elector of his or her district at the time of election and shall maintain his or her legal residence within that district for the duration of his or her term of office. While a member may have multiple residences, he or she shall have only one legal residence. The legal residence of a member at a designated location is demonstrated by a totality of the circumstances.
For the purposes of arriving at verdicts in all three cases, we’ll rely on public statements and available evidence in public records. Candidates were not asked to comment specifically for this story, since all have had ample opportunity to offer evidence in these matters already. This is a no spin zone, and we’ll rely on the record as it already exists.
Since there is no bailiff to say “all rise,” we’ll waive that formality and this court shall now come to order, yours truly, presiding.
Katherine Van Zant vs. Bradford County Taxpayers
Charge: Failure to pay 2016 property taxes
Bradford County Property Appraiser Jimmy Alvarez conducted an investigation and concluded that term-limited State Rep. Charles Van Zant and his wife, Katherine, who is running to replace him in HD19, have claimed a homestead tax exemption that they are not legally entitled to claim.
- Anonymous complaint by an alleged Bradford County taxpayer stating that the Van Zant home has “not been lived in for several years.”
- A finding by a deputy property appraiser that “upon physical inspection of the property we found it to be abandoned and we have determined that the above property is not your permanent legal residence.”
- Over the course of three subsequent meetings with the property appraiser’s office, the Van Zant family and their attorney failed to present sufficient evidence to establish that the address was, in fact, their legal residence under Florida’s homestead tax exemption law.
- Statements to media that the Van Zant home has “undergone extensive renovations…over the past eight years, and there have been periods when the couple stayed elsewhere.”
- Claims by Katherine Van Zant that “because of the remodeling, they’ve been going back and forth while staying at times with her husband’s son, Clay County school Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr., who lives about two miles away from them.”
- Claims by Katherine Van Zant that the investigation is politically motivated due to its timing.
The Capitolist’s Opinion:
The facts in this case are clear: an investigation was conducted, the home found to be abandoned (and a deeper investigation into prior years has been opened). The Van Zant family may in fact be in the middle of remodeling their home, however, by Katherine Van Zant’s own admission, the remodeling has been going on for “the past eight years.” That’s an awfully long time. And perhaps the most damning piece of evidence in this case is a contradictory statement she provided to the Florida Times Union:
“We’ve been anticipating moving back very shortly for a long time” –Katherine Van Zant
The statement contradicts itself, or perhaps proves the point that, despite their intentions to move back, they have not done so for an extended period.
And while the timing of the investigation certainly might be blamed on political gamesmanship, one can’t blame the property appraiser for the timing. The appraiser’s office acted on an anonymous tip. So if anyone is to blame here, it is Katherine Van Zant and her husband, for failing to follow one of the basic rules of elected life: always conduct your personal and business affairs in such a manner that you remain above reproach. In this case, regardless of the motivations behind the anonymous complaint, Katherine Van Zant gave someone an opening to level an accusation. Even if it is an honest mistake, it’s a mistake that may cost her the primary election, and it’ll almost certainly cost her and her husband thousands of dollars in back taxes.
Rep. Debbie Mayfield vs. Florida Legislature and House District 54 Constituents
Charge: Living outside of elected district in violation of the Florida Legislature Joint Rule 7.1
This case first came to light as a result of an questionnaire submitted by Rep. Debbie Mayfield to Florida Today, in which she listed herself as a resident of Rockledge, Florida, located in Brevard County, since 2015. But Mayfield’s House District 54 encompasses Indian River County, and no part of Brevard County is located in House District 54.
Under rules governing the House of Representatives and the Florida Legislature as a whole, Members of the Florida Legislature must maintain their residency for the entire duration of their term in office. And the penalties for violating this rule require the legislator to repay his or her taxpayer-funded salary for every day he or she fraudulently took it.
- A questionnaire submitted by Mayfield to Florida Today in which she admitted living in “Rockledge, Florida.”
- Property tax records examined by The Capitolist indicate Mayfield no longer receives a homestead tax exemption from Indian River County, the county and legislative district she was elected to represent.
- None found.
The Capitolist’s Opinion:
This case is cut and dry. By Mayfield’s own admission on a questionnaire submitted to Florida Today, she moved out of the district she was elected to represent, in direct violation of the Joint Rules of the Florida Legislature (see: Joint Rule 7 on page 95). That document even provides a long list of factors to consider as a way to determine if the legislator lives inside or outside of their district. Mayfield fails at least four of the first five such tests. Here’s the wording:
The legal residence of a member at a designated location is demonstrated by a totality of the circumstances. Factors to be considered include, but are not limited to:
(a) Where one claims to reside, as reflected in statements to others or in official documents; [In a questionnaire submitted to Florida Today, it explicitly lists her as a resident of “Rockledge” since 2015, which is located far to the north, well outside of District 54];
(b) The abandonment of a prior legal residence, as evidenced by moving from or selling a prior legal residence; [Mayfield lives in Rockledge in Brevard County, so she clearly “moved from a prior legal residence” in Indian River County];
(c) The abandonment of rights and privileges associated with a prior legal residence; [again, Mayfield abandoned her claim to a $50,000 homestead exemption that all legal residents of the county may claim];
and, (e) Where one claims a legal residence for a homestead exemption; [Mayfield claimed this exemption in Indian River County in 2015, but according to her latest tax bill from 2016, she is no longer eligible].
The allegations against Mayfield are now more than a week old, and Mayfield herself has offered no evidence in the public sphere to refute it. We scoured her website and social media accounts (including those managed by her supporters) and aside from some soft denials by a handful of supporters, not a single point of hard evidence was offered to disprove the allegation. Judging from all available evidence, Debbie Mayfield not only lives outside of the district she was elected to represent, but she is doing so in direct violation of the Legislature’s rules of conduct. And according to Florida’s Rules of the House of Representatives, Mayfield may even owe the taxpayers of Florida a portion of her salary for both 2015 and 2016.
Rep. Mike Hill vs. Anonymous Complainant
Charge: Homestead tax exemption claim fraud
Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones confirmed to two media outlets that his office is investigating a homestead tax complaint against Hill, but declined to elaborate further. Yet according to one website, Jones received an anonymous complaint that Hill is claiming a homestead exemption on one property while listing his legal residence at a different location. It is unclear how the website learned such details in light of the fact that Jones says he isn’t talking while he investigates.
While this case has similarities to the previous two cases (Van Zant and Mayfield) outlined above, it also has some key differences, which we’ll examine in greater detail.
- Mike Hill and his wife claim a homestead tax exemption on a home they jointly own, which is located outside the district he represents in the Florida House of Representatives.
- To comply with Joint Rule 7.1 of the Florida Legislature (see Mayfield case above), Hill rents an apartment inside his legislative district, which is certified as his personal legal residence (not his spouse’s).
- Hill has stated he and his wife hold a joint deed for the property on which they claim a homestead exemption.
- There is no legal requirement that a married couple must both live in a jointly owned property in order to claim the homestead exemption.
- Thus, Hill’s wife, by legally residing in their jointly owned home, would qualify for a homestead exemption on the property.
The Capitolist’s Opinion:
While there may be some question about where, exactly, Mike Hill and his wife spend their evenings, there is no concrete evidence to prove the allegation that Hill is in violation of the law or that he has committed any kind of homestead exemption fraud.
There are also several potential scenarios which would exonerate him completely:
- Hill and his wife live separate lives, he in one residence, she in the other; or,
- Hill and his wife follow the precise letter of the law, splitting time equally between the apartment rented by Hill and the Hill family.
There is also the possibility that Hill and his wife live full time in the home they own, and he spends little to no time in the leased apartment. If this were the case, Hill might be in violation of the Legislature’s Joint Rule 7.1 (see Mayfield’s case above), but he’s definitely not illegally claiming a homestead exemption.
Proving which scenario is an accurate reflection of the facts isn’t necessary, because the allegation made against Hill failed to consider that Hill’s wife can legally claim their jointly-owned home as her primary residence regardless of where Hill himself is living.
Comparing the circumstances of Hill’s situation with that of Katherine Van Zant, who admitted she is not currently living in her legally claimed residence (and who was found by an investigator to have “abandoned” the property), it is clear that the two cases are completely different. This is especially so in light of the fact that no one has suggested Hill has “abandoned” the home he owns with his wife.
Hill’s case is also substantially different from Mayfield’s situation. Whereas Hill positively has asserted he personally lives inside his own district (as opposed to his spouse’s legal residence), Mayfield (by her own admission) does not live in the district, nor does she make any homestead claim to the contrary.
Accordingly, we dismiss the allegations against Rep. Mike Hill due to a lack of evidence.
Obviously, these are my opinions only based on all publicly available information at the time of publication, and should not be construed to represent the actual verdict from a legally recognized court of law. Lawyers wishing to sue me or The Capitolist for expressing my (almost certainly factually correct) opinion should send all correspondence here.