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Investigation clears county official of wrongdoing; Third party looks at land dealings

By Staff | Oct 1, 2008

The long, complicated saga of Don Stilwell has finally reached an end, as a third party investigator cleared the county manager of any wrongdoing in his dealings with son in-law Samir Cabrera.

Fort Lauderdale-based CPA and certified fraud investigator Michael Crain was charged by county commissioners in mid-July to carefully examine the circumstances by which Stilwell had become linked to Daniels View LLC, a real estate project located east of Interstate 75 currently at the heart of a federal investigation surrounding Cabrera.

Commissioners questioned if Stilwell had lied about whether he had an ownership stake in two parcels of land at Daniels View.

“I have not found any evidence that Donald Stilwell ever had an ownership interest in the two parcels … “ Cain wrote in his report. “Furthermore, I have not found any evidence that contradicts Mr. Stilwell’s statements to the Lee County Board of Commissioners at their May 29, 2007, and February 26, 2008, meetings about the property.”

The result triggered a heated batch of sparring among county commissioners.

After hearing the report’s result, Commissioner Brian Bigelow questioned not only the integrity of the report itself, but Crain’s viability as a third party investigator.

“Your background doesn’t match up with what we needed the investigator to pursue,” Bigelow told Crain. “There’s so much here you aren’t even looking at, or choosing not to look at.”

He said the report was “whitewashed” and alluded to the possibility that County Attorney David Owen might have received specific, if not private, instructions to choose an investigator who would not delve too deeply into the investigative process.

Owen denied any such instructions and praised Crain’s skills as an investigator.

“I have tried to keep it fair, objective and impartial. I have not had any substantive discussions with any of you in respect to this process,” Owen told commissioners. “Crain is one of the finest investigators I’ve had the pleasure of doing business with.”

Commission Chairman Ray Judah has steadfastly maintained throughout the third party process that he has had no involvement with Crain or his investigation, even telling Crain it was a “pleasure to finally meet” him when he entered to give his presentation.

Commissioner Frank Mann suggested the commissioners themselves might shoulder some of the blame for the prolonged investigation for not properly instilling a finely tuned set of ethical standards for all county employees, regardless of whether they work contractually or not.

He went on to praise the work Stilwell has done as county manager for the last 15 years, but did say he was “guilty of the appearance of indiscretion.”

In statements following the report’s findings, Stilwell spoke to commissioners about the possible tainted mark the proceeding investigation could have on his career — especially the manner in which it was handled by local media outlets — but also promised never to make another land investment in Lee County.

“There will be no more,” he said.

The vote was passed 4-1 to accept the investigation report with Bigelow dissenting.