Councilman tied to campaign of council candidate

Justin Grabelle, the president of the Ocala City Council, right, makes a motion to fire Ocala City Manager Sandra Wilson as he sits with Councilman Brent Malever, left, during the Ocala City Council meeting at Ocala City Hall in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Shane Alexander, the former Ocala Fire Chief, was fired from his position last week by Ocala City Manager Sandra Wilson. The Ocala City Council voted not to remove Wilson from her position as City Manager for firing Alexander during the meeting. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted August 26, 2021 | By Carlos Medina,

Justin Grabelle, the president of the Ocala City Council, right, is shown with Councilman Brent Malever, left, during the Ocala City Council meeting in July. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 

An Ocala City Councilman who works for a political consulting company reportedly pitched his services to a sitting council member and is working on the campaign of another candidate running against his fellow councilman Brent Malever.

Justin Grabelle, who is the current city council president and represents District 5, is listed as the director of business development for Gainesville-based Data Targeting Inc.

Barry Mansfield, who is running for the District 1 seat, previously said Grabelle was involved in his campaign.

Jay Musleh, the incumbent District 3 councilman said Grabelle approached him in March offering campaign services. Musleh said he passed.

During this election cycle, the company has provided services to Mansfield, Ty Schlichter and Kent Guinn but is also connected to historically doing work for Accountability in Government, Inc., a PAC that is active in this election

Schlichter seeks the District 3 seat and Guinn is running for re-election as mayor.

On Aug. 25, neither Grabelle nor Mansfield immediately returned calls for comment.

Schlichter, meanwhile, said Grabelle does not work for his campaign, nor can he remember directly speaking to him about using Data Targeting for services.

“We got quotes from a bunch of direct mail companies. They were the most competitive. We got about five quotes,” Schlichter said.

Guinn said his association with Data Targeting dates to 2019 when he used the company for his last mayoral campaign. He said Grabelle is not involved in his campaign.

According to an archived webpage for Data Targeting from Sept. 25, 2020, Grabelle “creates and executes campaign plans.”

Since at least early November 2020, Data Targeting’s webpage has featured a static splash page with its logo.

Data Targeting is a political consulting firm specializing in Florida Republican campaigns. The company, led by CEO Pat Bainter, has come under scrutiny recently in the investigation of a vote siphoning scheme in a 2020 Florida Senate election in Miami-Dade County.

On Aug. 24, Alex Rodriguez pleaded guilty to charges he accepted an illegal campaign contribution in the race that unseated Democrat incumbent Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez last year.

Alex Rodriguez also agreed to testify against former State Sen. Frank Artiles, who is accused of setting up the scheme, according to an Associated Press report.

Prosecutors charged Artiles in March with felony campaign fraud charges, saying he secretly gave more than $44,000 to Rodriguez so that he could run in the 2020 election to confuse voters and siphon ballots from Jose Javier Rodríguez. The funds allegedly came from a dark money source. Artiles has pleaded not guilty, according to AP.

At the time of the alleged scheme, Artiles was working for Data Targeting on “state legislative campaign assignments … to include certain Senate Districts in Miami-Dade County,” according to records from the Miami-Dade’s State Attorney’s office which were reported on by the Tampa Bay Times.

There is no known connection between those issues and any of the Ocala campaigns nor Grabelle. Data Targeting has worked on hundreds of campaigns for decades.

Mansfield’s campaign has spent the most with Data Targeting, including $3,500 for campaign management. The campaign has spent a total of $23,150 through early August, according to campaign expenditure reports.

More than $12,000 of the spending was for mailers, They also spent money on website services and campaign signs.

Schlichter’s campaign spent almost $16,000 on mail services with Data Targeting, according to spending reports.

He said he did not see anything wrong with Grabelle working for campaigns while still on the city council.

“Everybody has a job outside the city council,” Schlichter said.

Guinn spent the least with the company at just less than $3,500 for advertising, reports state.

Grabelle announced he would not seek re-election for District 5 earlier in the year. He was first elected to the seat in 2017. Neither James Hilty nor Greg Steen, the two candidates seeking the District 5 seat, have spent any campaign contributions with Data Targeting, according to reports.

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