GREEN COVE SPRING, Fla. – The morning after Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended embattled Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels, arrested Thursday night on criminal charges stemming from a sex scandal investigation, the governor appointed Special Agent Matt Walsh of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as interim sheriff.
With more than 23 years of experience, Walsh was most recently the assistant special-agent-in-charge of the FDLE’s Jacksonville Regional Operations Center. He previously supervised its Public Integrity Squad.
He’s now got five months to make his mark in Clay County, when whoever wins the November election takes over in January.
DeSantis did not comment on why he brought in someone from outside the agency rather than elevate Undersheriff Ray Walden, who manages day-to-day operations for the Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s a tough job to go in and try to pick up the pieces behind somebody else and hope that it’s 100% successful,” said Ken Jefferson, a News4Jax crime and safety expert.
Jefferson said Walsh will have to lean on the men and women already in the department and he’s basically a “figurehead.”
“Sometimes they look at the totality, or in this case, the governor looked at the totality of the issues why the sheriff had to be removed, and in his opinion, he may have felt that they just need somebody fresh and new,” Jefferson said.
In an article Walsh wrote for Police1.com in late June encouraging law enforcement personnel as they faced additional challenges after the death of George Floyd, he encouraged officers to remember why they choose a life of service in the first place and to “continue to serve with honor and integrity.”
DOCUMENT: Walsh’s oath of office
The executive order suspending Daniels signed by DeSantis Friday night states in part that “it is in the best interests of the residents of the Clay County, and the citizens of the State of Florida, that Darryl Daniels be immediately suspended from the public office, which he now holds, upon the grounds set forth in this executive order.”
Effective immediately, the order states, Daniels is suspended from public office and prohibited from performing any official duty or function of public office. He is prohibited from receiving any pay or allowance and from any privileges of public office during the suspension.
The charging documents released by the Clay County Clerk of Court indicate Daniels is charged with a count of evidence tampering, a third-degree felony offense, and three counts of knowingly giving false information to law enforcement, a first-degree misdemeanor.
Additional court documents obtained by News4Jax on Saturday showed that Daniels denied he ever ordered his former lover, Cierra Smith, arrested -- something the investigator found was false. He claimed he also tried to take out an injunction against her -- also found not to be true.
According to a transcript of sworn testimony during the investigation, Daniels said he decided to call a deputy for help when he said Smith was following him and he felt in danger.
“I started thinking (the) Clay County sheriff has to kill a female, young female in her vehicle. I said, eh, ’That’s not a good look for myself or the county.’ ... I guess I’m going to have to open up Pandora’s Box here.”
At least one of the tampering with evidence charges is likely from deleting the call log on his cellphone. According to the new documents, Daniels also told the person in the Clay County Sheriff’s Office’s IT department, “There’s stuff that doesn’t need to see the light of day.” That tech told his supervisor, who advised him to keep the phone because it might be evidence.
Daniels said he didn’t give the phone to IT, but asked his assistant to do it -- something she denies.
Daniels calls arrest ‘dirty politics'
In a video posted on YouTube after his arrest, Daniels maintained his innocence, called the charges against him “dirty politics,” and said he would not resign as sheriff nor would he voluntarily end his efforts for re-election. Five challengers are trying to unseat Daniels in a Republican primary race where more than 17% of Clay County residents -- probably half of those expected to cast votes -- have already cast ballots in the Aug. 18 primary.
The winner of the primary is likely the winner as he or she will face only a write-in candidate in November’s general election.
Even if Daniels is re-elected, he cannot return to the office unless he is acquitted of the criminal charges and DeSantis resends his emergency order.
How we got here
The FDLE confirmed an internal investigation last year into a corrections officer, Cierra Smith, who had been Daniels’ mistress while he was her supervisor. Officials said Daniels had tried to get Smith arrested in May 2019 on stalking allegations, and investigators told prosecutors there wasn’t enough evidence. Smith resigned while under investigation for misconduct claims.
On Friday, Smith’s attorney, Latoya Shelton Williams, told News4Jax her client will be moving forward with plans for a civil wrongful arrest lawsuit.
“It was a wrongful arrest. It was an abuse of power for [Daniels'] own personal gains,” Williams said.
News4Jax on Friday spoke with Rep. John Rutherford, R-Florida, a former Jacksonville sheriff who worked with Daniels during his time at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
“I’m not gonna make any judgments on his behavior until, you know, he’s had his opportunity in court so to speak,” Rutherford said.
Through his attorney and a video statement posted on social media Thursday, the sheriff has maintained his innocence. Attorney Matthew Kachergus said his client has no intention of stepping down and that he still plans to seek reelection.
In the video, Daniels reads part of a letter, suggesting state prosecutors told him to resign, and drop out of the Sheriff’s race, or face prosecution. But special state prosecutor Brad King said in a responding letter that claims of an ultimatum are “not true.”
Instead, King writes, his office offered Daniels a deal to keep his pension if he withdrew from the Sheriff’s race and his job, among other things.
In the video clip, the sheriff questioned the timing of the criminal charges, calling it “very suspicious” and using the term “dirty politics.”
“Within days of a primary election, the powers that be, especially the State Attorney’s Office, has decided that today is the day that they will execute their plan and interfere with what’s going on with the sheriff,” Daniels said.
King noted in his letter: “I do not know Sheriff Daniels, his politics, his opponents, nor for that matter any citizen in Clay County. When I am asked to prosecute a case, I do it based on the facts and the law and nothing else.”