With less than a week before early voting begins for the Aug. 30 primary, the race for the 14th Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office (SAO) has taken a deeper, more personal turn

PANAMA CITY — The race for top prosecutor in the circuit has been intensifying in the sprint toward Election Day, with the challenger going on the attack against his former boss.

With less than a week before early voting begins for the Aug. 30 primary, the race for the 14th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office (SAO) has taken a deeper, more personal turn — which the position seems to breed in this circuit. Former second-in-command Greg Wilson has unleashed a flurry of attacks in an attempt to distinguish himself from his former boss. Meanwhile, incumbent State Attorney Glenn Hess has been touting his record in public service and the achievements of the office under his leadership as one of the most successful administrations in history.

Both men agree the office they pursue has been doing good work. As the top two officials for the past two terms, Hess and Wilson both are bound to promote the successes within the SAO. However, each is scrapping to define who gets to take the credit.

The race — which leads to a four-year term — started in May with Wilson abruptly resigning from his role as deputy chief, saying Hess welshed on agreements to step aside so Wilson could succeed him. Hess denied the charge at the time and said Wilson’s resignation came after he declined to help him “slip into” the office unopposed.

In the most recent barrage of accusations, Wilson said Hess hired an attorney he previously said he would not have part of his administration as a “political favor.” He also attacked Hess’ personal courtroom record.

A flier being circulated by the Wilson campaign claims Hess has been repaying people who have raised campaign funds for him in previous elections with $120,000 in “political favors” and “needless spending.” In particular, Wilson pointed to the hiring of Martha “Sister” Blackmon-Milligan as a part-time attorney in Grand Ridge for $66,621 plus benefits, which is more than 80 percent of the attorneys in the office are paid.

“That position was created for Sister for that area,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of good attorneys … that live there. It’s not hard to find a good attorney there.”

Blackmon-Milligan has campaigned on Hess’ behalf in the past and, according to campaign finance records, has raised more than $100,000 for Hess in this election.

In an interview Monday with The News Herald, Hess said hiring part-time attorneys “on the ridge” is a common practice in the SAO. He said retaining young attorneys in a rural part of the 14th circuit is a challenge, and he mentioned that Wilson negotiated Blackmon-Milligan’s salary and also had hired another attorney for the area at the same rate.

“She has tried death cases,” Hess said of Blackmon-Milligan. “She is a formidable attorney. We were lucky to get her at that price.”

In his campaign materials, Wilson also questions Hess’ personal trial record, claiming he has tried only five cases in his time as state attorney and won three of those. The other two cases either were thrown out by a judge or a jury found the defendant not guilty, the material states.

“That’s an embarrassment,” Wilson said. “As state attorney, you need to be able to evaluate each and every case. … If you want to send a strong message, you dang sure better win.”

Hess said Wilson has his numbers wrong, saying he has not only had six wins as state attorney but also personally prosecuted the capital murder trial of Johnny Mack Skeeto Calhoun and won. The family of Calhoun’s victim, 24-year-old Mia Chay Brown, has been the subject of Hess’ recent campaign commercials. Hess fired back that Wilson himself has never tried a murder case.

“He’s been second chair and tries to claim he was the lead attorney,” Hess said. “Second chair is the guy that carries the books.”

Hess said his two losses came down to deficient witness testimony, but because both involved violent firearm charges, he was compelled to take the cases as far as they could go.

Wilson said one of the cases Hess tried actually ended in a plea deal. He responded that he has tried nine cases, with two ending in either a not guilty verdict or a hung jury.

Stand Your Ground

In the weeks before the controversial advertisement, Wilson also released National Rifle Association (NRA) candidate grades showing he had received an “A” while Hess got an “F.” In tandem, he cited Hess’ participation in defeating a Florida bill that shifted the burden of initiating a “Stand Your Ground” defense from the defendant to the prosecution in death cases.

“As a citizen, the state should have to prove its case,” Wilson said. “As state attorney, I’m not going to go to Tallahassee and lobby against these individual rights. The issues will be in line with my constituents, not what’s popular in Miami.”

Hess, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said the NRA mostly rewards candidates they believe will do its bidding. He said he NRA lobbyists pressed him during debate on the Stand Your Ground bill but he defended his stance, saying the conventional protocol for an affirmative defense, or a “yes, but” defense, required in a Stand Your Ground case would have been upended by the bill. He added that the bill drew unanimous ire from all 20 state attorneys, because to support the bill would empower criminals.

“It was going to be a ‘Get out of jail free card’ for gang-bangers and drug dealers, who use pistols in doing their work,” Hess said. “This was radical, and it was a bad bill.”

Retirement

A few days later, Wilson released a document his supporters consider a “smoking gun” that Hess did not intend to pursue a third term. The document shows Hess signed up for a state employee retirement program, Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), in December 2012, at which time he stated he would terminate his participation in the program January 2017.

As an elected official, Hess can renew his participation in the program for one additional year. Wilson claims the decision to run for a third term was motivated by a difference of about $100,000 in retirement funds for the additional year and questioned whether Hess still would be willing to complete the term because the money would not be attainable until he leaves office.

“I find it hard to believe he is going to stay a full four-year term,” Wilson said. “I’m not ready to retire, though. I’m ready to work.”

Hess said Wilson not only misunderstood but “intentionally misconstrued” his participation in DROP, which he said he considered a more personal attack than he has faced in past elections. Hess said he didn’t pursue DROP until after June 2012, when his son lost his leg to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. After that, he started looking toward the future well-being of his son, he said.

“It’s not because I planned to bail, but because I had extra responsibilities,” Hess said. “This is something I did so I could ensure I’d be able to carry my soldier.”

Wilson maintained his position.

“The facts are what they are,” he said. “Voters are smart enough to see through what politicians say.”

Agreement

Both candidates have been promoting the recent record of the SAO. However, each has been attempting to distinguish his own role in contributing to its success.

Hess’ campaign highlights his 25 years in public service with a focus on his past two terms as state attorney.

At present, the attorneys in the SAO are winning trials at the highest rate in history. Hess said before his administration, the SAO was winning only about 52 percent of trials. That figure is currently at about 82 percent, which includes a flawless streak of winning murder trials during Hess’ administration. He attributed the success to decisions under his leadership to hire and retain trial-winning attorneys and implement a “team research” approach to trial prosecution.

“We’re doing better than it has ever been done,” Hess said. “That is what I promised when I ran for office.”

Wilson agreed the SAO has done better under Hess than under previous administrations. However, he attributed the success to his own hiring decisions and emphasized the need to continue on an upward trajectory.

“I’m proud of where we’ve taken this office,” he added. “We’ve got a long way to go, though, and where (Hess) is at is that (the office) is good enough.”

Wilson published a graph in his most recent advertisement that showed a steady incline of trials won since he was hired as deputy chief. Adjacent to the graph were figures that show Hess taking 153 days out of office since 2013, including 62 vacation days.

“State Attorney’s Office excels under Greg’s leadership,” the ad states.

“It took me a year to get the mess that Hess had straightened out,” Wilson said. “When I came to Bay County in 2011, that’s when things started to improve.”

However, Hess said the numbers are misleading, and the increase in winning trials can be attributed to an in-house training program. He said the success of the office laid squarely on the top three attorneys participating in the training program.

“It’s the quality of the attorneys we have as part of our training program,” Hess said. “He was not part of that training program. We were going to go up whether he was hired or not.”

Wilson said Hess had indeed promised a training program during a previous election, but it was not implemented in earnest until the past three years.

“To say they’re responsible is inaccurate,” Wilson said. “Two of the three training attorneys weren’t hired, and the other was exclusively investigating murder cases.”

As for the vacation days, Hess said top-level attorneys in the SAO are allotted 60 days off a year, which he said Wilson also took advantage of. He attributed the remaining days out of office to time spent in Tallahassee testifying on Stand Your Ground and the death penalty.

Wilson and Hess both are running on the Republican ticket for the circuit, which covers Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson and Washington counties. After only four months, campaigning already has consumed the lives of the candidates — who sometimes attend several events in a day — and the coming weeks likely will be no less strenuous.