WINTER HAVEN, Florida -- He dared to criticize high-profile Sheriff Grady Judd and, as a result, a Winter Haven pastor had undercover officers spying on his meetings.
While the Sheriff is defending the practice, others are calling it inappropriate steps to chill free speech.
The allegation that the Polk Sheriff's Office was spying on a group critical of it is unadulterated fact. First, there's the fact the sheriff's office admitted it's true and, secondly, confirmed in a sheriff's office email.
Pastor Clayton Cowart, of the Church of God the Bible and the founder of the Poor and Minority Justice Association, says the sheriff's office, "was concerned about our agenda".
Cowart has been lashing out at Polk Sheriff Grady Judd.
According to Cowart's organization, Judd often makes outrageous claims that aren't true. The Poor and Minority Justice Association has been paying for ads calling out Judd.
Cowart says, "I believe he [Judd] is part of the problem. The system itself it really the problem, but he is part of the system, so he is part of the problem."
That's why Cowart believes, as the internal email shows, Polk detectives acted in an undercover capacity to gain intel during the meeting of his group.
Mike Pheneger, of the Great Tampa ACLU, says the undercover spying is wrong.
"It looks like an opportunity for the Sheriff over there to profile groups that are involved in social and economic justice and I think that is reprehensible," he says.
However, a spokesman for the sheriff's office says it would have been irresponsible not to send in undercover detectives because they were acting on a tip there would be civil disobedience and they wanted to know what the plans were.
However, Cowart says, "I'm not going to take Bibles and blow up the county, I'm not going to do that."
In addition, when Cowart got suspicious and tried to find any public records about the spying he was told it would cost $16,000 to get the information. However after a public records advocate made a request, the records were turned over for free.
"I thought that was just ludicrous," Coweart says.
And while the sheriff's office is maintaining it did nothing wrong, those who were the target of the undercover investigation say there is a systemic problem in Polk County regarding minorities and they say Grady Judd is part of that system and something must be done to change it.
While the sheriff's office points out Cowert was arrested last year on a misdemeanor stalking charge, Cowart says it has nothing to do with this story, and he says he pleaded guilty instead of going to trial because he could not get all the discovery information that he says would have proved his innocence. Cowart says the State Attorney's Office found the missing discovery information after he pleaded guilty.
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