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Baker Sheriff Scotty Rhoden, who is under investigation, gets his campaign headquarters for $150 a month. Can that possibly be legal? 

Baker County Sheriff Scotty Rhoden in front of his campaign headquarters in downtown Macclenny. (Courtesy: Scotty Rhoden for Sheriff Campaign)

On June 8, Baker County Sheriff Scotty Rhoden hosted a meeting of about a dozen supporters outside his campaign headquarters, where he cheerfully handed out campaign signs and posed for photographs. 

Rhoden seemed unfazed that day by an executive order signed the previous week by Gov. Ron DeSantis authorizing the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate his sheriff’s office, an investigation he’s claimed is politically motivated and designed to “divide our BCSO family.”

While the reasons for the criminal investigation remain undisclosed, the Florida Trident (which reported in April on allegations Rhoden engaged in voter intimidation) has uncovered serious questions about his campaign headquarters building that appear to be worthy of additional attention by the Florida Division of Elections for potentially improper campaign contributions. 

Rhoden, standing, is under investigation by FDLE for undisclosed
reasons. (Courtesy: Facebook/Baker County Sheriff’s Office)

Rhoden’s campaign began paying the water bill in February on the 1,347 square-foot building at 787 6th Street in Macclenny, according to campaign finance reports. Florida law says the campaign must also pay full market value for renting the building, yet there was no corresponding rent listed for the property, which is owned by Rhoden supporter Mark Lee and his wife Holly.

When asked the sheriff about this discrepancy, Rhoden, who is facing fellow Republican J.D. Carpenter in the August primary, said his campaign wasn’t installed in the building until April. “It was not open at the time, but it will be disclosed on the next campaign report,” Rhoden said.

Evidence appears to refute that assertion. In addition to the campaign paying the water bill starting in February, a photograph supplied by a confidential source shows the building festooned with a Rhoden campaign banner dating back to Feb. 3.

On June 10, two days after the Trident questioned him, the sheriff submitted a new campaign finance report listing two “in-kind” contributions from Mark Lee of $150 for rent on April 1 and again on May 1. 

A monthly rental value of $150 for the building seems ridiculous on its face. The building is appraised by the county at $157,151. The real estate rule of thumb that a fair market rental rate is roughly one percent of a property’s value would place the rental value of the campaign headquarters at about $1,500 a month, or ten times what the sheriff’s campaign is claiming. Even one month’s rent as an in-kind contribution from Lee at the apparent fair market value exceeds the $1,000 maximum campaign contribution amount allowed by law for an entire campaign cycle. 

Rhoden defended the rental price. 

“You can see the condition (the building) was in, and you can make a decision on that,” he said when asked if $150 was fair market value. “I am not a real estate person. I agreed to an amount, and that is what we’ve agreed to. And I think it’s fair.” 

When questioned by the Trident in a telephone call, building owner Lee was reluctant to provide specifics regarding the property, saying, “It ain’t none of your business.” But Lee did give an impassioned response when questioned about the FDLE investigation against Rhoden. 

“Yeah, I have a response,” he said. “It’s politics. It’s bullshit!”

A previous tenant of 787 6th Street who spoke on condition of anonymity scoffed at the rent number for the building and implied they paid more but declined to say how much.

“Everyone knows that nobody pays $150 in rent,” said the past tenant.

About the Author: Jack Randall is a freelance reporter who also serves as the news editor of the northeast Florida weekly Clay Today