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Candidate for judge hit with false claims he boasted about helping pedophiles beat sex crime charges

By Susan Clark Armstrong, FLCGA News

Attorney Ray Forbess Jr. held a commanding lead in his Clay County race for judge and had just been endorsed by the sheriff when he began to hear some bad things about himself. 

Folks in the rural northeast Florida county began chattering that the 38-year old Forbess, a married father and former prosecutor with an untarnished reputation, had bragged about setting pedophiles free for his work at the Forbess Law Firm founded in nearby Jacksonville by his father. 

The rumors spread to social media and then on July 7 a website run by a close Roger Stone associate named Jacob Engels published an attack piece on Forbess headlined “FL Judicial Candidate Helped Pedophiles & Child Molesters ‘Get Off’ In Private Practice.””

Engels, who was removed from Facebook and Instagram in 2020 for “inauthentic behavior,” wrote that Forbess “boasted on his law firm website about defending at least 20 child molesters or pedophiles.” The operative cited as proof “success stories” that had been archived on the Forbess Law Firm website about the dismissal of disturbing child sex abuse cases.

Two days later, on July 9, a conspiracy theory-spreading site called Big League Politics picked up Engels’ story, alleging in its headline that Forbess “sought out alleged pedophiles [and] bragged about helping them beat sex crime charges.””  

The hit pieces, however, were false. The cases cited weren’t represented by candidate Forbess, but by a Jacksonville attorney named Victoria Mussallem who left the firm in 2011, five years before Ray joined his dad’s firm.  Forbess said he had never seen Musallem’s archived web pages until he heard the rumors and they were quickly taken down. 

But that didn’t stop people, many of them anonymous, from sending him nasty emails laced with expletives, said Forbess, telling him he should “burn in hell” and other “inappropriate stuff.””

“If I’ve done something, I will always come clean with it,” Forbess said. “And that was what’s so sad to me — I’m getting attacked for something that is not me. I can show that it’s not me. I was at the State Attorney’s office at the time, wasn’t even working at the firm, and I’m getting attacked for something that is not true.””

He said his wife, who works at the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, has also received abusive texts and he’s concerned about how the attacks could affect his six-year-old son in the normally tight-knit community.

“I worry about him at school or hanging out with his friends,” said Forbess, his voice cracking with emotion. “And have the parents read this article that’s not true? Are they going to think differently about my son because something was written about me that is not true?””

Judicial elections are supposed to be above such spurious and sensational attacks. The non-partisan races are considered sacrosanct and subject to an exacting set of rules in the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct called Canon 7.

Each candidate must swear in writing that they’ve read and understand the requirements of Canon 7, which demands that they “refrain from any inappropriate political activity” and that any criticism of opponents be truthful. The rules, which are overseen by the Florida Supreme Court, extend to their family members and campaigns.  

Despite the special nature of judicial elections, the false whisper-and-smear campaign aimed at Forbess has come to dominate the Clay County race. And a close look at how it grew shows that a pair of competing campaigns may have run afoul of Canon 7.  

Birth of a smear     

Forbess’s opponents in the race are Geraldine Hartin, a lawyer in private practice specializing in real estate, estate planning and family law, and Tonya Barge, a prosecutor who worked at the State Attorney’s office in Jacksonville and transferred to the SA’s office in Clay County last October.

Last month polls showed both Hartin and Barge in the low single digits while Forbess was on fire with a considerable lead. His momentum was fueled by numerous endorsements from police, firefighters, Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook and some local elected officials. 

The attacks began when local lawyer Chris Johns, a one-time candidate who has since dropped out of the race, posted cryptic messages on his personal Facebook page. Sources inside both the Hartin and Barge campaigns said Johns shared the Mussallem files with them. 

Johns denied passing the information to the other candidates. He told FLCGA News that “all candidates were well aware” of the information on their own.

Musallem’s archived “success stories,” credited to Forbess, caused a stir among parishioners at the large Hibernia Baptist Church on Fleming Island. Congregants appeared to be split: Some wanted Forbess exposed in the media; others who respected him just wanted to know the truth.

Those who did the judging, and the ones who tried not to, all said the source of the information was church member Diane Hutchings, who is the elected Clay County Tax Collector, and her daughter Ashley Hutchings Gilhousen, a school board member.  

Both mother and daughter are supporters of candidate Hartin. FLCGA News obtained copies of texts from Gilhousen spreading the so-called “Forbess files.” While Hutchings refused to comment on the smear, daughter Gilhousen said she only shared the information with “a couple of close personal friends” and denied sending any texts.

When questioned, Gilhousen said she was unaware that Forbess didn’t represent the defendants in the sex crimes cases and wasn’t even at the firm at the time. She maintained that the existence of cases, even if they aren’t tied directly to the candidate, is “very troubling” for the Forbess firm.

In an interview with FLCGA News, candidate Hartin said she was familiar with the Forbess allegations but said she too didn’t know her opponent wasn’t involved with the cases being used in the attack. She said Forbess still bears responsibility.

“If [Musallem] is not there and it was her cases, it’s their website, in their control,” she said of Forbess and his father. “… That is something they should have looked into and owned the responsibility for their website.””

When pressed on Canon 7 rules regarding integrity and inappropriate political activity, Hartin said she would “chat”with Hutchings and her daughter Gilhousen about the matter. “I will look into what’s happened,” Hartin said. 

Barge’s hired gun spreads false story

The Big League Politics story alleging Forbess sought out pedophiles was disseminated by Barge’s top campaign advisor, Brian Graham, to constituents around the county in text messages, one of which was shared with FLCGA News.

Graham is also a known associate of Engels, the blogger who wrote the initial smear piece on Forbess. On at least two occasions Engels has cited Graham, a past chairman of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans, as a political expert on his website. 

County election records show that Barge’s campaign has paid Graham’s political consulting firm at least $7,500 for his services to date.    

That Graham actively spread false information while working for Barge could obviously be problematic for the candidate. FLCGA News attempted to contact Barge, but calls, voicemails, and text messages went unreturned. Calls to Graham went unanswered as well.

Just what effect the stories will have on the August 23 vote is impossible to know, but Forbess said it’s not slowing down his efforts to reach voters.

“Judicial candidates are held to a higher standard to ensure the integrity of our local courts remain strong,” said Forbess. “Trying to win ‘at all costs’ is a grave violation that betrays public trust.””

Forbess said he’s represented less than ten defendants who had been charged with sex crimes during the six and a half years he’s been in private practice, a small percentage of his total clients. Most of them, he said, were violation of probation cases and only one involved a young child. In that instance, the defendant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison, said Forbess. 

He doesn’t apologize for that work.

“Our country was formed on having due process,” he said. “That’s the backbone of our legal system. Everybody gets due process, no matter what you are charged with. And shying away from that is horrific for our country.””