County commission candidate Poole rubs in old wounds to disparage opponent


Rachel Mangum with the rifle squad on Memorial Day 2014, at the Veteran’s Park.

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Posted July 25, 2022 | Jennifer Hunt Murty
jennifer@ocalagazette.com

Editor’s note: This article contains graphic language that could be offensive or disturbing to some readers.

An issue that many in Ocala might prefer to keep in the past has re-emerged in the run-up to the Aug. 23 Republican primary election in the Marion County District 4 commission race: allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation from 2016 against then-Police Chief Greg Graham.

One of the Ocala Police Department officers at the time who filed a complaint is Rachel Sams, then Rachel Mangum, who is running in the race to unseat incumbent Commissioner Carl Zalak. Her opponents in the primary include Keith Poole who, at a recent candidates’ forum and elsewhere, has dredged up the 2016 case to attack Sams, labeling her “a fired, disgraced cop.’’

A law firm hired by the Ocala City Council and Mayor Kent Guinn investigated the complaints and in 2017 found “no evidence’’ to support the claims made by Sams and other female officers against Graham, who was reinstated to his position. He died in a 2020 plane crash.

However, a separate investigation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found cause to support the allegations of retaliation against Sams for filing the grievance. Sams, who resigned from the police department in 2017, settled with the city for $75,000 in 2018.

Sams was one of three female police officers who brought allegations against Graham, the police department and the city. Those claims were also settled.

Those other cases have faded from the headlines. However, with Sams now a commission candidate, the controversy surrounding her allegations has resurfaced. A now-disbanded Miami-based political action committee recently sent a direct mail piece to Marion County voters describing Sams as a “fired” cop and asking her, “What’s your problem with former Ocala Police Chief Graham?”

Poole has suggested in recent social media posts that Sams has only herself to blame for the harassment she received from Graham.

“If you put yourself in a position and you portray yourself in such a manner that you are soliciting that attention, then you get what you paid for,’’ Poole wrote in a public post to Facebook this week. “Whether you are a male or a female, it is very difficult to cry foul play when you were a willing participant.”

The Gazette’s review of public records do not indicate that at any time Sams was a willing participant to her harassment or retaliation from fellow police officers.

At the center of the controversy is an incident that took place in a Washington D.C. bar on May 14, 2016.

Drinking game gets out of hand

A number of Ocala Police Department officers had gone to Washington, D.C. for the National Law Enforcement Memorial (NLEM) event, during which the names of fallen officers are added to the monument. Among those attending were OPD Officer Rachel Mangum and her then boyfriend, OPD Officer Matt Sams. The two had been dating for two years and would marry in 2021.

They were there to honor OPD Officer Jared Forsyth, who had been shot and killed in a police training accident in 2015. Forsyth and Sams were partners and both Sams and Mangum had been with him the day of the fatal accident. Mangum was standing so close to Forsyth when he was shot that her arm was scarred from shrapnel in the incident. Sams accompanied Forsyth in the ambulance to the hospital, where Forsyth succumbed to his injuries.

Sams and Mangum had used vacation time to attend the event along with Forsyth’s mother Amy. The pair paid for their own airfare and hotel.

Graham several other officers and civilians, as well as Mayor Guinn, also attended as representatives of the city. The city paid their expenses.

On May 14, Sams and Mangum joined Graham to visit the Holocaust Museum, then have dinner and eventually drinks at a bar with other OPD officers. According to deposition testimony, the bar was full of police officers from all over the country visiting for the event.

In the formal complaint filed against Graham, some of the officers and Graham started playing Never have I ever, a drinking game which required one person to state an inappropriate thing they had never done, mostly sexual in nature, to another participant. If the participant had engaged in the act mentioned, they would take a drink of an alcoholic beverage. Mangum testified to being uncomfortable with some of the things being said during the game and left the table to use the restroom.

According to the complaint, when Mangum returned to the table from the restroom, Graham pointed to her and shouted, “I have something for you!” Then Graham loudly said, “Never have I ever had a c— shoved in my a—!”

Mangum testified to being offended by Graham’s statement and humiliated in the presence of her colleagues and boyfriend. She said she reacted by redirecting the conversation.

There was also sworn testimony that Graham commented on Mangum’s breasts that night, comparing them to the other female officers at the table.

Two other officers besides Mangum’s boyfriend corroborated her account, according to a subsequent investigation by a city-hired law firm.

The Gazette reviewed photos from that evening that reflect an inebriated Graham in inappropriate situations. One was with another female officer in a bathroom stall.

The mayor sides with the chief

On Sept. 16, 2016, other officers and Mangum filed a complaint with Ocala and the EEOC alleging “sexual harassment, hostile treatment, retaliation, and discrimination.”

Before any investigation of the officers’ claims had begun, Guinn called a press conference to announce the complaints against Graham, adding that the city had hired the Talahassee law firm of Allen Norton & Blue to investigate. The firm had handled personnel issues for Ocala in the past.

At the news conference, the mayor then proclaimed his support for the police chief, according to published reports. “I stand beside Greg Graham and we’re going to do this investigation and move on from there,” Guinn said.

In a deposition years later, Guinn was asked why his immediate reaction was to stand by the accused rather than the officers making the complaint. He said he did it for “morale.”

Initially, the mayor did not think it necessary to suspend Graham during the investigation. But attorney Bobi J. Frank, who represented Mangum and the other officers making the complaints, went to the city council and demanded it.

Frank also appealed to the council to stop Guinn from repeatedly publicly declaring his intentions to support Graham during the investigation since it could potentially make other officers reluctant to testify as witnesses.

City council suspended Graham with pay during the city’s investigation and directed him not to have contact with anyone at the police department other than Deputy Chief Rodney Smith.

The mayor admitted years later in a deposition that he never gave that directive to Graham, instead only telling him to avoid communication with his accusers.

The city’s attorney, Patrick Gilligan, indicated he had a conflict of interest because he had served as personal counsel to Graham and they were also friends. Stephanie Pidermann represented the city throughout the grievance period.

Less than a month later, Frank notified the city council that Allen Norton & Blue, the firm they hired for the investigation, had a conflict of interest and that her clients were facing retaliation from other officers.

Frank also said she offered the investigating firm the option of having a separate independent expert administer polygraph tests to the OPD officers and Graham. The firm refused her offer.

Allen Norton & Blue issued its final report in January 2017, and Guinn sent it immediately to the media. Frank told the Gazette she first heard about the findings from an Ocala Star-Banner reporter who had received it from Guinn.

The firm found “no evidence” of sexual harassment or retaliation for all the officers’ claims. Further, they determined that even had Graham made the statements attributed to him, they “did not rise to the level of sexual harassment.”

The report recommended Graham be reinstated with all rights and benefits pertaining to his position, and the officers who had filed the grievances “not be subjected to any unlawful retaliation for reporting these allegations.”

Graham was reinstated as police chief at the next city council meeting.

Different investigators, different results

Mangum continued to work for OPD for almost 10 months after filing her grievance against Graham. She gave notice of her resignation on July 5, 2017. She used accrued vacation time for a final separation date of July 16, 2017. In a recent social media post, Sams reiterates that she was not forced to resign her position.

Meanwhile, the EEOC investigation of the allegations continued.

Nearly a year after her resignation, in June 2018, the EEOC announced it had found cause to uphold Mangum’s complaint of retaliation.

According to minutes taken of private meetings between the city council and their attorney, Pidermann, the EEOC found Mangum had been singled out for retaliation for filing grievances against Graham.

Pidermann told the council the EEOC was pushing the city to enter into a settlement agreement with Mangum. Pidermann expressed concern that if there were no settlement, the EEOC would refer the case to the U.S. Department of Justice.

PIDERMANN: I don’t think anybody wants the Department of Justice in their back yard.

In my last City, the Department of Justice required that we report every internal complaint to them in our response and how we handle it. We had to do, like, a 90-hour, some absurd number of trainings, and I had to report to the Department of Justice everything that happened with respect to discrimination in that City for a two-year period of time. And they also mandate what they think is a reasonable settlement value.

I think that as it’s within our control, before it blows up any bigger and the EEOC refers it to the Department of Justice — granted, the Department of Justice can exert the right to take on the case or reject it, if they don’t think it’s worth their time.

At a meeting on Aug. 27, 2019 with city council, Pidermann shared her thoughts on Mangum’s claims of retaliation:

PIDERMANN: ……Look, I have a safety concern with officers calling off on – – not responding, not giving backup. That’s a concern. It puts our officers —

COUNCIL MEMBER JUSTIN GRABELLE: She alleges that?

PIDERMANN: Yeah, and she gives specific incident, incident report numbers, so we can double-check the CAD report and see who called off and why. Granted, my argument is I don’t have control over the rank and file. I only have control over the supervisors, but it’s a trickle-down effect of, yes, they are blacklisted because they complained.

During that same meeting, the council expressed concerns a settlement would incentivize more claims. But Pidermann felt that if the city continued to fight the claims, there would be opportunity for new retaliation claims to hatch “given the hesitation and the concern I personally witnessed in speaking to current officers, who are in fear for testifying in these cases and in fear for retaliation.”

Pidermann told the council there were officers who had not yet been deposed, but she knew their testimony would not be favorable to the City.

The EEOC finding opened the door for Mangum to file a suit for damages, which she didn’t. Instead, she settled her claim with the city for $75,000.

Piedermann said she was surprised. The meeting transcript reads:

PIDERMANN: She must have just wanted to be done with this and put it behind her. She is actually really angry. On Mangum, she’s the only one who – – out of them who got a for-cause. And I have a feeling it’s because she had some corroborating testimony above what we have. Because the EEOC would not disclose to me who they — what information they obtained that allowed them to enter that for-cause, because it’s confidential until the full thing is wrapped up. But the investigator assured me that they had evidence. They’re like, “Look, there’s a reason we gave one for-cause and not the other.”

Pidermann told the council that Mangum had no interest in continuing to work for the Ocala Police Department, and part of the settlement agreement was that Mangum would not disparage or seek employment with the City of Ocala. Under the agreement, the city would also not disparage Mangum.

The Gazette asked Sams why she hadn’t moved OPD to correct the record it sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement indicating that she had resigned during an internal investigation that never materialized. Pidermann acknowledged the inaccurate report to FDLE was another example of retaliation Sams had faced as it could possibly prevent her from being hired at another agency if she wanted to go back to law enforcement.

Sams waved off the question. “I’ve moved on,” she said.

The aftermath

Speaking of her time in OPD between filing complaints against the chief and eventually leaving the department, Sams explained, “I kept my nose to the ground.”

“The biggest thing for me initially was what do I tell the general public? I had to treat the subject with kid gloves,” she said.

Public sentiment at the time, she recalled, was, “Why would you upset the community?”

“I had two jobs in between leaving OPD and getting my [financial] advisory license,” Sams said. One time, she had her brother reach out to the potential employer to smooth the way for her by explaining why she was diverging from the law enforcement education and experience reflected on her resume.

Within weeks of Mangum quitting the department in 2017, her boyfriend and future husband Matt Sams did, too. He would also file a complaint against OPD alleging retaliation with the EEOC which was aso settled.

The couple had to make significant lifestyle changes to survive after leaving OPD. Matt estimates they blew through at least $40,000 of savings initially. Rachel worked at a farm, “stocking shelves, baling hay, helping deliver horses, whatever was necessary.” Matt initially explored retail opportunities but eventually became a private investigator.

It was hard on Rachel’s family, too. “They treated the subject publicly with kid gloves, too, but they were in my corner,” she said.

Rachel told the Gazette, “There’s a reason why laws are made. There’s a reason why rules are developed. We as humans err. But there has to be checks and balances in the end. We all have to take responsibility for our own actions. And who will trust you to take responsibility for them when they need help if you can’t take personal responsibility?”

Despite the difficult circumstances, Rachel said she never questioned whether she did the right thing.

“If you are not willing to stand up and fight for yourself,’’ she said, “how are you going to fight for anyone else?”

The aftermath

Commission candidate Poole, who has raised this incident and other events from years ago to attack Sams for her behavior and judgment, has had his own troubles in the past. Poole has openly admitted he faced criminal charges for giving alcohol to underage people but asks voters to dismiss the seriousness of that offense. Since the offense was some time ago, the Gazette could only find limited information on the Marion County Clerk of Court’s website. It appears that Poole’s offense was addressed through a pre-trial court intervention program.

In another attack on Sams’ character, Poole recently highlighted a photo of her at age 19 holding up a sign with a suggestive message.

Asked about the sign, Sams told the Gazette she came across a homeless man outside of a restaurant holding a sign. She paid him for it and posted the picture of her holding it on her social media.

“I was 19, and at the time I thought it was funny,” she said with a shrug.

Another photo being circulated by Guinn recently on social media, despite the nondisparagement agreement between the city and Sams, shows Sams being pushed in a shopping cart in Washington D.C. The Gazette asked her about the circumstances surrounding the photo.

“If you’ve ever been to Washington D.C., you know everything closes down at a certain time and someone left a shopping cart out,’’ she said. “We were being silly. My friends were trying to cheer me up.”

Sams said she was not drunk in the photo with the shopping cart, as her political opponents are suggesting. “Anybody who knows me knows I don’t drink very much because I get migraines,” she said.

The Gazette asked Poole if he had ever experienced sexual harassment personally. He replied that he found the question “inappropriate.”

“I have a young daughter. I have raised my daughter to act appropriately. When you put yourself in an environment and you act a certain way and you are going to be treated a certain way,” he said.

For her part, Sams said she is still committed to serving her hometown.

“I could have moved on and tried to restart somewhere else,’’ she said, “but I didn’t. I have remained.’’