Former Republican party chief pleads guilty

Former Sarasota County Republican Party chairman Robert Waechter gives a DNA sample in Judge Donna Berlin's courtroom after pleaded guilty to a felony and a misdemeanor on Thursday morning for making illegal campaign donations in the name of a political rival in a bid to undermine her political career. (Dec. 12, 2013) (Herald-Tribune staff photo by Dan Wagner)

Former Sarasota County Republican Party chairman Robert Waechter gives a DNA sample in Judge Donna Berlin’s courtroom after pleaded guilty to a felony and a misdemeanor on Thursday morning for making illegal campaign donations in the name of a political rival in a bid to undermine her political career. (Dec. 12, 2013) (Herald-Tribune staff photo by Dan Wagner)

By DREW WINCHESTER
STAFF WRITER

SARASOTA COUNTY — The former head of Sarasota’s Republican Party pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges of fraud and violating Florida’s election laws, following a 2012 attempt to discredit a current county commission candidate by making a donation to a Democratic congressman’s campaign fund in her name.

Robert Waechter, 71, of the 6500 block of Peacock Road, told 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Donna Padar Berlin his actions were an “embarrassment” to the Republican Party and the values the party represents, using a prepared statement that also denounced his actions as “sophomoric.”

Although he originally pleaded not guilty to the crimes, Waechter’s attorney, Steven Walker, said the plea deal was grounded in “fairness and justice,” and also served as an opportunity for his client to move on.

Waechter pleaded guilty to one count of violating state election laws, a felony, and one count of fraudulent use of another person’s identification, a misdemeanor. Berlin withheld adjudication for the felony, and Waechter will serve three months of community control, followed by two years of probation and a $5,000 fine, as part of the deal. Waechter could have faced up to five years in prison for the felony charge.

Dressed in a gray pinstripe suit, his hands folded in front of him, Waechter solemnly told the court, “I lost sight of the dividing line between right and wrong.”

According to Assistant State Attorney Brian Iten, Waechter sought to discredit Lourdes Ramirez, who is running for the District Four county commission seat currently held by Nora Patterson, because he believed her to be a “RINO,” or a Republican in Name Only.

Waechter, too, had another person he wanted to see run for that seat, and when Ramirez would not back down he hatched a scheme that would make it appear as if Ramirez donated $200 to then-congressional candidate Keith Fitzgerald, who was eventually elected.

Ramirez received a thank you letter in the mail for her contribution and fearing that her identity had been stolen, contacted authorities. Investigators found that Waechter had made the contribution using a pre-paid Visa card, and video surveillance footage showed him purchasing the card at a Sweetbay Supermarket on Bee Ridge Road in 2012.

Ramirez said Thursday the incident has not harmed her campaign and instead fortified her efforts, showing voters that she won’t stand for dirty politics.

She told Berlin during a brief statement to the court that she was concerned after hearing rumblings that the State Attorney’s Office would only pursue the misdemeanor charge. She feared that Waechter and the State Attorney’s Office were politically aligned and they would take leniency on him.

Ramirez asked the FBI to get involved, but State Attorney Ed Brodsky declined its assistance and his office decided to pursue both charges against Waechter. Ramirez said Waechter’s admission of guilt sends a message that dirty politics won’t be tolerated in Sarasota.

“It’s not just me he offended. It was an attempt to undermine the democratic process,” Ramirez added.

Waechter told the Sun outside of the courtroom the deal does not prohibit him from being involved in politics and plans to continue his involvement locally.

Email: dwinchester@sun-herald.com

Originally published in the Dec. 13 edition of the North Port Sun.

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