By Jay Meisel
PORT ST. LUCIE - Former Port St. Lucie Mayor Patricia Christensen last week took responsibility for campaign record-keeping errors, but defended her record of serving the public.
"I just want to get on with my life," Ms. Christensen said after pleading "no contest" to charges of official misconduct, a felony and disposition of surplus funds, a misdemeanor.
Ms. Christensen, who served 20 years as a city council member and mayor, resigned last October after being accused of using campaign funds for personal expenses.
As a result of her plea, Ms. Christensen will be placed on probation for five years and have to pay fines and court costs, including $3,318 that will go to CASTLE, a nonprofit program that helps families. That figure is based on two checks that were put from campaign funds into a personal account.
That's besides more than $19,000 in fees and fines she has to pay as a result of the agreement.
Also, during the time of her probation she has agreed not to run for political office or accept a political appointment.
But she will be able to vote, as Circuit Judge Gary Sweet agreed to withhold adjudication, meaning that if Ms. Christensen completes her probation she will have no criminal record.
In agreeing to withhold adjudication, Judge Sweet noted that is often done with first-time offenders. He said he also found support for the former mayor was "quite impressive."
The court received 90 letters of support, he said.
He also said he does not believe the case involves political corruption.
Ms. Christensen attributed the problems, in part, to a turbulent time in her family. She said her father died and they dealt with his estate and they were caring for her mother-in-law. She also said a son was serving overseas in the military.
She became involved in politics through the values taught by her parents, she said.
"My parents raised me to get involved and not to just complain," she said.
Although she worked to accomplish a lot during the past 20 years, the campaign controversy is overshadowing that, she said.
The 20 years also has been a challenge for her family, she said. "Being under the microscope is not the healthiest thing for a family."
Since she resigned, she's been gratified for the continued support of a lot of friends, she said. That is what has made her want to get out of bed each morning, Ms. Christensen added.
Ms. Christensen appeared to wipe tears from her eyes, as her son, Matthew, said the whole family had to make some sacrifices because of his mother's devotion to the city.
"There are people in the city who don't like her and that's why we're here," he said.
Also supporting her was Port St. Lucie city attorney Roger Orr, who said, "I have found her devoted to her family, devoted to her community.
"She served the public well," he said. There's nothing to suggest she used her office for personal gain, he added.
Frank Ferraro, an accountant hired by Ms. Christensen, said records support that because of bad record keeping, thousands of campaign expenses were never reported.
He found no evidence of misuse of campaign money, he said.
But Victoria Huggins, a former candidate for mayor who filed the complaint led to the charges, said she feels the judge's decision indicates t hat politicians receive preferential treatment.
"If the crime committed was done by an ordinary citizen, they would be doing time for their misdeed.
"Some may look at this as a right and just punishment for Ms. Christensen and that precedent was set by this ruling," Ms. Huggins said in a written statement.
"I look at it as sending a very bad message to our local elected officials. That message is, no matter how much you betray your civic duty to office, even by committing a felony, you won't go to jail in St. Lucie County. Judge Sweet's ruling sent the message loudly and clearly that "elected officials in St. Lucie County are above the law," she said.
"Is it alright for our local elected officials to receive preferential treatment when they commit a white collar crime of this nature? In my opinion, no. Our elected officials should receive no preferential treatment whatsoever when they commit a crime of this nature. They should be sentenced as everyone else would be in this situation," she added.
"What I am looking at is the whole of the crime committed, including the offenses that Ms. Christensen could not be tried for because the statute of limitations had run its course. In that respect, she got very lucky," she said.
"Mr. Farrell admitted that if the case had gone to trial "the state probably would get a conviction" because (Ms.) Christensen admitted to "atrocious bookkeeping" and that money left over after the campaign was not handled properly. I submit that money within her campaign account was not handled properly throughout her entire campaign. Mr. Farrell admitted that if the case had gone to trial 'the state probably would get a conviction' because (Ms.) Christensen admitted to 'atrocious bookkeeping' and that money left over after the campaign was not handled properly," Ms. Huggins said.
"I submit that money within her campaign account was not handled properly throughout her entire campaign," she said.
"When asked by Judge Sweet if she was accepting the plea deal because she was guilty or because it was in her best interest, (Ms.) Christensen replied, 'It's in the best interest of me and my family.'
"I'd like to ask Judge Sweet if his ruling was in the best interests of the citizens of Port St. Lucie or the best interests of elected officials within St. Lucie County," she added.
The investigation found that among other things, Ms. Christensen had deposited checks for $17,000 into her personal accounts. She was unable to show how $5,000 of that was reimbursement for using personal funds for campaign expenditures.
Joann Faiella, Ms. Christensen's successor as mayor, declined comment.
"I don't believe it would be appropriate to comment," she said. "I just want everyone to move forward, stay focused on city businesses and be positive about the good things happening in this city."
Attorneys for Ms. Christensen indicated they will ask Judge Sweet to reduce the five years of probation agreed upon in the plea agreement. Judge Sweet declined to address that during the hearing last week.
Assistant state attorney Lev Evans said his office generally opposes such changes. He said his office keeps its part of the bargain and expects the defense will.
But in some cases, his office has agreed to early termination of probation, he added.
"With regard to Ms. Christensen, the state would be hard pressed to argue she is a threat to the community and in need of a probation officer to monitor her actions," he said.
In any case, he said, the state feels it's important to make all payments required by the judge. The state also wants to make sure she is prohibited from running for office or accepting a government position for as long as possible, he said.
T. Charles Shafer, one of Ms. Christensen's attorneys, said that Ms. Christensen "served the public for so long and is now not able to do anything to serve the public. I think that hurts her the most, not being able to serve the public."