Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake City

LCPD City Manager Investigation: Background Check or Stassi Like Police Overreach?

LAKE CITY, FL – The recent search for a city manager in Lake City was generally an unscripted – fly by the seat of your pants – affair. The Lake City City Council was responsible for the search methods and the final methodology of the background check of the applicants. In the civilized world, HR departments and credit reporting agencies perform detailed background checks of finalists. Lake City sent two armed Lake City Police Department (LCPD) plainclothes investigators unannounced into the present and past communities of the two finalists, Joe Helfenberger and Danielle Judd.

The Investigators

In June, LCPD supervisors Lt. Andy Miles and Sgt. Jason Byrd were assigned to do on-the-ground background investigations for the vacant City Manager position. The police narrative said they "traveled to the cities where the candidates were previously employed."

In Ms. Judd's case, this was not true. Danielle Judd, the City Manager of Green Cove Springs, was still employed as its city manager when the LCPD investigators barged unannounced into city hall before heading off to Alachua County, her former employer.

Mr. Helfenberger was employed by the City of Archer at the time of the police investigation. According to the report, the investigators did not visit Archer. They visited St. Cloud, FL, before flying out to Ottumwa, Iowa, where he was formerly the city manager.

The police did not advise the municipalities of their plans in advance. According to the investigators, the reason was "an effort to ensure the persons interviewed would provide candid and transparent responses."

Once on scene, the police investigators asked to review the candidate's personnel files and speak with various persons they determined were known by Mr. Helfenberger and Ms. Judd.

According to the police narrative, some departments provided copies of the files, which were added to the police report.

The Investigation

Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Jackson was the Chief United States Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, served as the United States Solicitor General, and the United States Attorney General. Justice Jackson knew the law from all sides.

Justice Jackson said in Watts v. Indiana (1949), "[A]ny lawyer worth his salt will tell the suspect in no uncertain terms to make no statement to the police under any circumstances."

Experienced police, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges will all tell you the same thing, "Don't talk to the police."

When they were not under criminal investigation, Lake City sent the police to investigate Ms. Judd and Mr. Helfenberger.

Only a few knew about the City's clandestine policy of sending the police to investigate potential City employees. The investigation included making unannounced visits to candidates' employers and past employers, hanging out in public spaces, and knocking on neighbors' doors to find out what kind of people they were and how they lived.

In the case of Ms. Judd, the police would hang out in a public park and meet and talk to strangers to find out their opinions of her. These opinions, which the LCPD included in its report and are now public record, clearly could affect Ms. Judd's search for future employment and something right out of a John le Carré novel.

Remarks for both candidates included in the police investigation were not taken under oath, were hearsay, rumors, opinion, or some combination.

Green Cove Springs did not provide the police with Ms. Judd's personnel file, something which the HR department could have easily obtained through a public records request.

The LCPD investigators are not trained HR professionals.

Included in the police report of Mr. Helfenberger is the following: "We spoke with another former city councilman who asked to keep his name out of the report because of his current position. He told us Mr. Helfenberger is a really nice, smart man, but that he was sometimes indecisive... "

The rest of the anonymous remarks were unflattering, unproven personal opinions and hearsay. The Observer has left those remarks out, as they serve no useful purpose other than to besmirch the reputation of Mr. Helfenberger.

Other Candidates

One recent Lake City city manager candidate, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said he thought the police background check was a criminal background check by the police sitting at their computers. "That's what they are supposed to do," he said.

He continued, "I never heard of that being done, personal visits. I think that went too far."

Another candidate told the Observer, "The police came to my employment wearing badges and guns. I thought the police were supposed to do criminal investigations, not civil investigations."

The Intimidation Factor

It is clear that when the police show up with guns and badges to investigate, people feel obligated to talk to them in ways they might not talk with someone from HR or a personnel agency. Even though HR checked the candidates' references, the police followed up with personal visits to question others.

What Are They Talking About?

The narrative stated the following: "The investigators were told Mr. Helfenberger sometimes struggled with members or department heads with strong personalities. Although there was nothing to indicate Ms. Judd had the same issue, the question was posed to the people she worked with to ensure fairness and that the question would not appear to be gender related."

Additionally, it said, "The investigators made every effort to cite in this report the direct responses from persons interviewed without filter and altering their statements."

The investigators said that people spoken to about Mr. Helfenberger gave "pretty consistent" answers.


After the Observer discovered that the LCPD did on the ground investigations of Ms. Judd and Mr. Helfenberger, your reporter contacted Ms. Judd via email and asked if she thought her background investigation was going to be an on the ground investigation and that the police "would walk around the neighborhood asking strangers and/or neighbors about you, what they thought of you and questions about the way you lived?"

The day after the LCPD's crack personnel investigation team visited Green Cove Springs, Ms. Judd, who was thought by many to be the chosen candidate, withdrew her name from consideration.

Via email, your reporter asked Ms. Judd, "Did you reject working in Lake City because of the way the police were used to investigate you?"

Ms. Judd did not respond.

Comments (to add a comment go here)

Posted on July 17, 2018, a Lake City resident wrote:

One thing is clear, police officers only do what they are told to do. The problem with the police background check lyes with its leader. The first act the new city manager needs to do is to thank the Police Chief for their service, and send them packing!

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.


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