Oren Miller has been exonerated. On Thursday, a Florida appeals court overturned the conviction of the 73-year-old retiree turned former Sumter County commissioner, who was removed from office by Ron DeSantis in 2021 amid a battle with the Florida governor’s high-dollar donors. The court took the unusual step of not just vacating the previous conviction, but also instructing the lower court to insert a new verdict of “not guilty.”
The saga of Miller and his fellow commissioner, Gary Search, who was similarly prosecuted, captured national attention earlier this year after The Intercept reported on the backlash to their effort to roll back property taxes in The Villages retirement community. A surge in public support for Miller’s legal defense fund enabled him to appeal his conviction.
Ahead of the investigation into Miller and Search, as The Intercept previously reported, a top Villages official, who has hosted DeSantis for fundraisers, told Search on Election Day he had the personal phone number of DeSantis, adding, according to Search: “Search, just remember one thing: I’m a big person, you’re a little person. I can squash you anytime I want.”
During oral arguments, a three-judge panel made up exclusively of Republican appointees eviscerated the prosecution, giving Miller hope the conviction would be vacated — a tall bar for a jury verdict. That it was not just vacated, but also flipped to a not-guilty verdict makes the ruling all the more unusual.
Miller’s attorney had made the same arguments to trial Judge Anthony Tatti, but the motion was rejected. That the appeals court unanimously disagreed with Tatti is a stinging rebuke.
Miller and Search ran for office pledging to roll back a property tax increase that had been foisted on residents to fund future development in The Villages. They argued that if the developer, which also owned the local newspaper and radio station, wanted to expand the size of the retirement community, they should do so with their own money.
Shortly after Miller and Search were sworn in, the local prosecutor launched an investigation into whether they had violated Florida “sunshine laws” around transparency and open government. They were never charged with doing so, but as part of the investigation, the state’s attorney interrogated both Miller and Search about phone calls they had after the election. Commissioners are barred from talking about commission business outside of open meetings, and the investigators wanted to know about calls between the two that had happened earlier in the year. Miller, who said none of the calls were about commission business beyond who was picking up donuts and such, was repeatedly hazy in response to questions as to when the calls stopped. At one point, the investigator prompted Miller with a claim he had not made, saying that the calls ended in January. Miller agreed with him, but elsewhere gave different estimates, and at another point said that whatever the phone records said was accurate.
As the appellate ruling lays out:
In response to leading questions, Miller twice acknowledged that no calls occurred after January. However, prior to those questions, Miller made clear his uncertainty as to precisely when calls with Search ceased. Specifically, Miller stated the phone calls ended “about the first two or three months” after he and Search took office in November 2020, or “maybe three or four months.”
Thus, by Miller’s reckoning, the calls stopped between January and March 2021 or “somewhere in there.” Later in the sworn statement, Miller did not dispute that he received a phone call from Search in February, though he could not remember what they discussed. Further still, when asked about a phone call with Search in March 2021, Miller stated, that while he could not remember what they discussed, “[y]es, I promise you we had phone calls.”
For that, Miller was charged with perjury and served 75 days in jail. (Search took a plea deal rather than fight in court.) At oral arguments, the judges poked at the absurdity of the charge. Judge Harvey Jay, appointed to the bench by Republican Gov. Rick Scott and reappointed by DeSantis, picked up on the fact that Miller was charged with falsely saying his phone calls with Search stopped in January when in fact it was the prosecutor who first said that, and Miller simply agreed with him, while later saying he wasn’t sure and accepted whatever the records said.
“At the time he is asked, ‘You said January,’ he had not said January. Is that a big deal for us? I mean, it was just simply not the case,” Jay asked the prosecutor during oral arguments.
“Police may lie,” the prosecutor responded, describing a scenario where an officer falsely tells a suspect that his friend has confessed, so he might as well confess too. Judge Adrian Sound, another DeSantis appointee, jumped in to note how wildly different the two scenarios are.
He then drilled down on the prosecutor’s implicit claim, that an investigator can lie to a suspect, and if the suspect doesn’t correct them, they’re guilty of perjury, even if they’ve made contrary claims elsewhere in the interview. “Can a failure to correct — what you just described, he should have corrected … can the failure to correct then form in part or in whole a basis for perjury?” Sound asked.
The case is shot through with ironies, principally that the prosecutors used an anti-corruption law to prosecute a commissioner who was challenging corruption. In a further irony, the prosecution made obviously false statements while accusing Miller of perjury. “Reviewing the entirety of the sworn statement made by Miller to investigating authorities, it cannot be said he in fact definitively claimed that there were no phone calls with Commissioner Search after January 2021. Indeed, quite the contrary,” according to the ruling.
Miller had also been sentenced to three years of probation and community service. He has not decided whether he will sue the state for wrongful prosecution, he said. Angie Fox, Miller’s wife, said the ordeal had left a mark. “He lost everything. They took his job away. He had to go to jail. He had to pay for all the expenses and everything,” she said. “Where we go from here, I don’t know. Right now we’re just trying to settle down from the news.”
Miller had previously been barred as a felon from voting and running for office, but with his conviction overturned, he is able to serve in public office again.
Miller has said that he would run for his old seat on the county commission again if his name was cleared. Now it has been.
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