Local businessman says he was tricked into being a write-in by Chamberlin’s campaign team

Robert Fox of Foxy Bail Bonds poses for a photo at Tuscawilla Park in Ocala, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Fox has filed as a write-in candidate for the Florida House of Representatives District 24 special election to replace Rep. Joe Harding. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

Home » News
Posted January 31, 2023 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include details gleaned from records provided by the Secretary of State after the initial article was published.

Robert “Foxy” Fox, a Republican whose candidacy effectively closed the March 7 special election for Florida House District 24 to Republican voters only, says he now realizes he was duped by GOP political operatives who led him to believe they represented the republican party but instead are tied to candidate Ryan Chamberlin.

Fox is one of six Republican candidates in the special election to replace Joe Harding, who resigned the seat in December after a federal indictment charged him with numerous counts of fraud.

This is the second time Fox has filed to run for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. Last year, he filed to challenge Harding, only to withdraw in May at the request of elected officials he declined to identify who he said called him to ask that he let Harding run unopposed.

Because no Democrat or third-party candidate filed, state election laws would have designated this a universal primary open to all voters in District 24, which encompasses a portion of Marion County with high voter turnout along the Highway 200 corridor. When Fox entered the race as a write-in candidate, it closed the door to only republican votes in the primary election. If the race goes to a general election in May, all voters can cast ballots and their choice will be the winner of the primary or a blank line to write in Fox’s name.

Fox said he was approached by a friend, whose identity he declined to reveal, on Jan. 6 with an odd request: “Would you do a favor for the Republican Party?” Fox said he would listen and consider it, as long as what was being asked was not illegal.

That evening, Fox received a phone call from Brett Doster, who he believed at the time to be a representative of the Republican party. Doster, Fox said, asked him to be a write-in candidate to close the primary. Fox would later learn that Doster was a longtime political consultant for Republican candidates around Florida.

Fox told the Gazette that at the time, he thought it fair that only Republicans be able to vote since the other parties did not field their own candidate. Plus, he said it would be beneficial to his political future to be in the good graces of the Republican Party.

What he did not know at the time was Doster’s connections to Chamberlin. Doster is a paid political consultant who works for the Chamberlin and has donated money to his campaign. Doster’s brother, Russell Doster, is Chamberlin’s campaign treasurer.

Financial campaign reports show that Brett Doster’s Front Line Agency has received at least $21,000 from Chamberlin campaign. Doster’s family and businesses have contributed at least $6,000 to Chamberlin’s campaign, records show.

For his part, Chamberlin, touts being  a fundraiser in GOP politics through his True Patriot Network (TPN), a social media platform targeting conservative voters and donors. Chamberlin told the Gazette the main source of revenue from TPN derives from advertising that connected organizations to donors.

Chamberlin, told the Gazette he didn’t know about his consultant and treasurer’s dealings with Fox.

Doster declined to answer the questions about the write-in candidate or whether he did any business with TPN.

Fox said that when he filed to run as a write-in candidate, with Doster’s assistance, he meant only to help the Republican Party, not serve the interests of Chamberlin.

“Damn it, I was duped!” Fox said.

The deception

Just a few hours after the Jan. 6 phone call, Fox said Doster emailed him all the documents needed to file to run in the primary. Doster also told Fox by email that he’d initiated an account with the Florida Ethics Commission for filing financial forms.

When Fox said he might have difficulty getting the signed documents to Tallahassee by the deadline, Doster offered to send a runner to pick them up and deliver them to the Secretary of State’s office. Fox said he and his friend Barry Mackaben, who had volunteered to be his treasurer, decided to visit Doster in Tallahassee, where he would file the documents himself.

The morning of Jan. 9, they spent 45 minutes in Doster’s office tweaking the filing documents and updating his financial disclosures. Doster, Fox said, encouraged him to under-value some of his assets on the documents.

Fox and Mackaben said they were impressed by the photos of the high-ranking elected officials that covered Doster’s walls. Fox said Doster thanked him for filing as a write-in candidate, joking that had he not done so, Doster would have had to run himself.

Fox asked Doster his opinion on who would win the race and Doster shrugged off the question with, “I don’t have a dog in this fight.”

Doster, who has served as a political consultant for other Marion County elected officials, including Charlie Stone, and is the half-brother of Stan McClain, who represents Marion County’s State House District 23, told Fox the Republican Party would owe him one for falling on the sword this time.

Doster and his brother Russell Doster then drove Fox and Mackaben to the Division of Elections office to file the campaign documents.

Security logs produced by the Secretary of State’s office reflect Fox, Mackaben, and Doster signing in together.

There, Doster slid the documents across the counter to an election official who Fox only knows as “Mr. Howard,” who looked at Doster and asked, “What do you have to do with this?”

“Nothing,” Doster replied, stepping back while the clerk talked with Fox.

Fox said the clerk, who Fox knew from previous filings, then asked him: “Are you doing this for you?”

To which Fox answered, “Yes.’’

Fox said he didn’t understand the question’s significance until later.

The practice of write-in candidates and similar schemes involving so-called “ghost candidates” has increased in recent election cycles. One Central Florida case involving two Republican political operatives and an independent candidate led to criminal charged following the 2022 elections.

Bridgette Smith, chairperson for the local republican committee acknowledged that write-in filings for the purpose of closing a primary were common practice. Still, Smith would not comment on the circumstances that led Fox to file.

Fox said once he realized what had happened, he called the Secretary of State’s office on Jan. 19 to find out information to specific questions so that he could figure out a way to rectify the situation. He said the clerk told him he couldn’t answer Fox’s questions over the phone but to send them to Donna Brown’s attention by email.

Fox sent an email the next day. To date, he has received no response.

On Jan. 26, he forwarded the email inquiry to the governor’s office asking for help getting answers from the Secretary of State. Again, he has received no response.

The Gazette reached out to the Secretary of State’s office to speak to the clerk who handled Fox’s application and was told the clerk was not allowed to answer the Gazette’s questions.

The Gazette has requested the security log showing visitors to the Division of Elections office on Jan. 9 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mark Ard, spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, indicated he would check to see if it was a public record and get back to the newspaper. There has been no further communication from Ard.

After the Jan. 27 deadline to file the first campaign reports, Mackaben called the Division of Elections to ensure his treasurer’s report was correct. He has not heard back from anyone.

Fox’s motivation to run for office

Fox said he regularly votes, but he does not consider himself to be an active member of the local Republican Party. He said he served on a political committee that was hosting campaign forums in the 2016 general election as a representative of the business community.

Fox told the Gazette he was motivated to run for political office to fix what he sees as a broken judicial system. As a bail bondsman, Fox said he’s seen plenty of injustice, particularly concerning those who are dealing with mental illness.

“I’ve bonded out at least 100 people on Social Security for mental disabilities, and law enforcement treats them as criminals even if there is no criminal intent or understanding of why or what they’re doing is wrong,” he said.

Fox said that’s not justice, and those with mental issues are likely to get injured or killed while incarcerated. He said capacity needs to be grown for diversion courts, such as mental health courts, to address the unique needs of those with mental disabilities more productively and comprehensively. Additionally, Fox thinks law enforcement needs specialized training and resources to handle those situations with care.

He also felt strongly about term limits for local candidates. “The president has term limits, state legislatures have term limits, county commissioners need term limits for the same reasons,” he said.

Fox says he’s telling his story to alert others who may be seeking to dip their toe into politics and also to “take responsibility for my ignorance.”

Fox said he received a letter by USPS from Chamberlin on Jan. 30 asking Fox to pledge to run a clean campaign. The same pledge was proposed by Chamberlin to all the other candidates—Charlie Stone, Stephen Pyles, Justin Albright and Jose Juarez.

Fox said the rules concerning closing primary races in Florida need to be reexamined so they cannot be abused. “I think people need to know how campaigns are using this loophole, and that is why I’m telling my story,” he said.

Although frustrated by this experience, Fox doesn’t dismiss trying to run for office again as he originally intended.

“I really want to serve the people,” he said. “It’s time to plant a new tree so that in the future it can bear good fruit for the next generation after this one is gone.”

newspaper icon

Support community journalism

The first goal of the Ocala Gazette is to deliver trustworthy local journalism so corruption, misinformation and abuse are not hidden from the public or unchallenged.

We count on community support to continue this important work. Please donate or subscribe: