Host: Yesterday, a small non-profit broke the news of a police investigation into allegations of sexual battery and rape against Christian Ziegler, chairman of the Florida Republican Party. The news was first reported by the Florida Trident, the in-house publication of the Florida Center for Government Accountability. Our news team talked to Michael Barfield, the Sarasota-based founder of the organization behind the revelations.
Johannes Werner: On Thursday, the Trident — the in-house publication of the Florida Center for Government Accountability — reported that the Sarasota Police Department is investigating rape and sexual battery allegations against Christian Ziegler, current chairman of the Florida Republican Party, and former Sarasota County commissioner. He is also the husband of Bridget Ziegler, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, the group that profiles itself as a defender of family values. Moms for Liberty has been a driving force behind book bans and the conservative makeover of school boards nationwide, including that of Sarasota.
Bridget and Christian Ziegler.
On Thursday evening, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters Ziegler should step down as party chair.
“I don’t see how he can continue with that investigation ongoing, given the gravity of those situations”, DeSantis said about Ziegler.
The heavily redacted report of the Sarasota Police Department obtained by the Center for Government Accountability was put on a publicly accessible cloud.
Excerpt of the Sarasota Police Department report, obtained by the Florida Center for Government Accountability in an open records request.
Practically everything is blacked out, including anything that would reflect on the gender of the person who took the complaint to the police. The rape and sexual battery complaint — confirmed by Ziegler’s lawyer — refers to someone calling the police in the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 4, at an address in the City of Sarasota, reporting an incident that happened two days earlier. The only legible words are “raped” and “sexually battered”.
No crime has been charged. But people in the area are responding to the troubles of a blow-hard on LQBTQ issues.
In his Bradenton Journal blog, Marc Masferrer, a former editor of the Bradenton Herald, reminded readers of social media tussles he had with Ziegler. When Ziegler posted on X in April about trans girls performing in girls’ sports competition, Masferrer responded with a call to donate to ALSOYouth, a local organization supporting trans kids. Ziegler then aimed his guns at Masferrer, calling ALSOYouth’s work “weird and sick stuff”, and attacking Masferrer as a “supposed journalist”.
Meanwhile, school activists started a petition drive asking Bridget Ziegler to resign from the Sarasota School Board.
Separately, board member Tom Edwards issued a statement calling the police investigation “yet another distraction”, adding to Critical Race Theory, book banning and other topics, which take away attention from “what’s best for students”.
Michael Barfield and the FCGA
We talked to a key figure behind the revelation about the police investigation.
In a phone conversation with WSLR News, Michael Barfield was unwilling to talk about what he knows about the alleged incident. When asked about how his organization ran across the police investigation against Christian Ziegler, he declined to comment, citing source confidentiality. He did say that more information about the case will be forthcoming.
For now, Barfield was willing to talk about the organization he helped found two years ago.
At this point, the Center for Government Accountability employs “just five or six people”, including himself, Bob Norman — the editor of the Trident — and executive director Barbara Petersen. None of them work full time.
Norman is an investigative reporter who started working in Florida in 1993, among others for the Fort Myers News-Press, the Miami New Times, and WPLG Channel 10 in Miami.
The board of trustees of the organization features retired newspaper executives from across the country, as well as Pulitzer prize-winning journalists.
Screenshot of the Florida Trident webpage.
The non-profit depends on many mostly smaller contributions, ranging from $20 to $25,000, Barfield says. According to the 2022 IRS form posted on the group’s web page, the group received contributions of close to $135,000 last year, and spent $120,000, most of that on program services.
Barfield said that typically, his organization responds to requests by specific media organizations for help with open-document requests. He mentioned the New York Times and 60 Minutes, among others. Locally, the Center for Government Accountability has recently been working with the Bradenton Times, an alternative news site, in a case of Manatee County commissioners attempting to privatize the county’s human resources management.
Other local public records requests have centered on the role of a New College alumnus in the hostile takeover of the campus, and the City of Sarasota planning board’s communications surrounding a controversial high-rise luxury project.
“We only want their recognition that we contributed”, Barfield said about his organization’s work with news outlets.
In another case, the Center for Government Accountability publicly shared COVID data it obtained from the Florida Department of Health. The organization usually puts the documents it obtains in a publicly accessible vault.
Michael Barfield has a long history going after Florida Sunshine Law violations by elected officials. He is the immediate past president of the ACLU.
This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.
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