A Grassroots Revolt in an Iconic Retirement Community Ended With a 72-Year-Old Political Prisoner
The Villages Vendetta
As promised, the transcript of my interview with Tema Okun is now up, so if you prefer that to the podcast version, we have you covered here.
I spent last weekend and early this week in The Villages, Florida, an iconic and uniquely American retirement community. I got to spend some time with my brother and our dad, who’s a snowbird there, and he was lucky enough to have his birthday fall on the same day the Eagles blew out the 49ers.
I was also there to finish an investigation into one of the craziest stories of political retribution I’ve ever come across. My editor Nausicaa Renner carefully laid out the narrative, so I don’t want to spoil any of it, but just trust me, reading this will be worth your time, it’s one of the more frightening and disturbing stories you’re likely to come across.
Since the story was posted last night, readers have been flooding a GoFundMe set up to pay legal bills for one of the local officials you’ll meet in this story:
THE TROUBLE BEGAN in 2019 when residents of The Villages were suddenly hit with a 25 percent hike in their property taxes. In the master-planned retirement community of 130,000 across Sumter, Lake, and Marion counties in central Florida, many are on fixed incomes. The math they had done in plotting out their golden years had not accounted for a massive jump in taxes.
If the new taxes were intended to cover new amenities or upgrades for the Villagers, perhaps a hike would be worth the sacrifice. But the money was instead destined to subsidize further sprawl south of The Villages, ultimately benefitting the entity known locally either as “the developer” or “the family,” which could then escape paying the fees associated with the impact of their development.
“This place has grown like crazy,” said Oren Miller, who would go on to run for a seat on the county commission. “The developers pay no impact fees for schools, for fire, for EMS, for police, for parks and recreation, for government buildings. The only impact fees they do pay are for roads, and they only pay 40 percent of the recommended amount.”
The developer is a spaghetti bowl of LLCs, which is still owned by the Morse family, the descendants of Harold Schwartz, who founded the community in the 1970s as a trailer park before his son, Gary Morse, transitioned it to The Villages. The family owns the robust local newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun; owns the radio station, which pipes Fox News and right-leaning updates through speakers in common areas and at pools; owns the glossy magazine; and also owns local politics.
But a group of fed-up Villagers decided to fight back through the only remotely democratic chink left in the armor of The Villages, the county commission. The deck was stacked against candidates challenging the family and its allies, but there still had to be elections. Backed by the Property Owners’ Association, three Villagers stepped up to run: Craig Estep, Oren Miller, and Gary Search. They ran as a ticket under the clever moniker EMS, promising to rescue The Villages.
All three had moved south for the same reason as their neighbors: to retire and live the good Florida life. Miller had never been involved in politics before retiring, while Search had been a commissioner in South Whitehall Township in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, as well as a public school guidance counselor. Estep, a longtime Texan, had a successful career in emergency response management. The three ran as Republicans in opposition to the tax increase, arguing that businesses that profit from the development should instead shoulder the burden with an impact fee. They also vowed to reverse an initiative that had made it easier for the family to keep control of local politics and thereby return some power to rural areas outside the community. And Miller, whose wife was a committed opponent of the local high-kill animal shelter, added a promise to bring a no-kill shelter to The Villages, which won the support of the area’s animal rights supporters, concerned about what might happen to lost pets. While the population of The Villages had exploded, the capacity of the shelter system remained the same.
The amount of money at stake was eye-watering, well into the hundreds of millions for the developer. The Villages did more than $2 billion in revenue in 2021 alone, according to a Florida trade publication.
Contractors for the developer, led by the firm T&D, which primarily works for The Villages, swooped in to fund the campaigns of the incumbents who had enacted the tax increase, lavishing close to $200,000 on them, but it wasn’t enough. In November 2020, the EMS slate won in a landslide, giving them a 3-2 majority on the commission.
EMS immediately faced an onslaught from the Daily Sun, which portrayed the new commissioners as borderline communists set to destroy The Villages’ way of life. The paper accused them of “championing a reversal of the county’s longstanding pro-business strategy.”
A top official with The Villages made clear to the commissioners how rough a road they were about to go down, Search later told a meeting of the Property Owners’ Association. The day he was elected, he said, “I had a higher-up here at The Villages put his finger in my face and say, ‘Search, just remember one thing: I’m a big person, you’re a little person. I can squash you anytime I want.’”
“I said, is that a threat? And he said no, it’s a promise.” Search was later asked about his charge in a deposition and reaffirmed under oath that it happened.
The higher-up was Gary Lester, vice president of community relations for The Villages, Search separately told at least four other Villagers. Lester has been appointed to numerous boards by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and served on the commission that vets judicial nominations. (Asked if it was indeed Lester who issued the threat, Search told me, “I’m not going to say it was, but I’m not going to say it wasn’t. People know who it is.”)
Lester told Search that he had the personal phone number for DeSantis, telling him he could get the governor on the horn at any moment, Search later told his fellow commissioner Miller, according to Miller. “He indicated that he has the personal phone number of Ron DeSantis and can reach him at any point in time he deems that necessary,” Search confirmed. Lester did not respond to emails or messages left with his assistant.
Cracks formed early, with Estep, who became chair, drawing fire for going wobbly on the size of the impact fee needed, and the speed with which they could do the property tax rollback. But the trio quickly moved to make their campaign promises reality. By a 3-2 vote in March 2021, they hit businesses with a 75 percent increase in impact fees — less than what Miller and Search wanted, but a substantial amount nonetheless — to cover the cost of future development. There was no good reason, they argued, for residents to subsidize the cost of further development for the Morse family. If the family wanted to expand The Villages, they could fund it themselves. Estep didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.
It seemed like an open-and-shut case of democracy in action: Residents had banded together to make their voice heard and changed the direction of their community, rejecting a cozy arrangement between the area’s political and business elites. Next up was the property tax rollback.
None of that, of course, could be allowed.
THE FIRST COUNTERPUNCH came in January 2021, from Tallahassee, with a push for statewide legislation that would block local officials from significantly increasing impact fees. The Villages had an ally in the right place. In 2018, Brett Hage, then the president of T&D, the main contractor, had been elected to the state House, beating his opponent — Oren Miller — by some 40 percentage points in the Republican stronghold. After his election, The Villages hired Hage directly, paying him $141,000 the first year and $350,000 the next, according to his disclosures, as vice president for residential development. (Previous disclosures had not included such income.)
On January 9, 2021, Hage, still on The Villages’ payroll, introduced legislation to block the proposed impact fee hike. On June 4, 2021, DeSantis signed the bill into law. The governor and the Morse family have close ties, with DeSantis frequently visiting for fundraisers, and The Villages and its executives bankrolling DeSantis. Crucially for The Villages, the law was retroactive.
Income shown on Brett Hage’s disclosures from 2019 through 2021.Credit: Public disclosures
The Daily Sun spiked the football. “The Estep-Miller-Search tax increase dismissed the warnings of economists, business owners and community leaders,” its report on the bill’s passage reads. “This law is a big win for new businesses and homeowners in Sumter County, where three newly elected commissioners reneged on a promise to study road impact fees over the summer and instead raised them by 75% last month.”
The article is broken into sections that leave readers no doubt how the Daily Sun feels about the commissioners and their tax hike: “Law stymies freshmen commisssioners,” [sic] followed by “Conservatives lead charge,” “Understanding economic therory,” [sic] and “Locals applaud new law.”
Meanwhile, Hage had gotten a hefty raise. His 2021 disclosure shows his pay had jumped to $925,096 in the year leading up to Hage introducing the legislation. Though his state House pay is only $29,697 a year, his net worth, according to those same disclosures, had climbed from less than $900,000 to $2.2 million — a total of nearly a million and a half dollars since getting elected to office. In April 2022, Hage announced he wouldn’t be running for a third term. His work in Tallahassee was done.
If the pushback from The Villages, aided by DeSantis, had ended there, it would represent a brazen flow of cash from a developer directly to the personal bank account of a state lawmaker, who passed legislation saving the developer hundreds of millions and instead spreading the costs to tens of thousands of Floridians. If that was all it was, it would be an outsized, unusually lucrative version of politics-as-usual that many cynics expect from their lawmakers, even if they shake their head at it while reading the paper.
But it didn’t stop there. In fact, it only escalated.
On January 30, 2023, a gaunt, 72-year-old Oren Miller — by then a former commissioner, ousted from his seat by a DeSantis decree — was brought handcuffed into the Marion County Courthouse. He had lost 20-plus pounds in the 75 days he spent jailed awaiting sentencing on a felony charge for, essentially, nothing. Or, perhaps more accurately, for fighting back against a powerful, well-heeled ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“It’s a very complicated story,” Angie Fox, Miller’s wife, told me when I first reached out to her. But it’s also a simple one. “Bottom line, he is a political prisoner.”
Angie Fox outside her home on Jan. 14, 2023, in The Villages, Fla.
Photo: Elise Swain/The Intercept
THE GOVERNING STRUCTURE of The Villages would be familiar to anybody who has lived under the thumb of an aggressively run American homeowners association, complete with its busybodies, covenants, restrictions, and the type of infighting iconically portrayed in “Seinfeld”’s fictional Del Boca Vista, the retirement community of Jerry’s parents. Del Boca Vista, like The Villages, had its own newspaper, The Boca Breeze.
Oren Miller moved to The Villages about a decade ago, after 40 years at the Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Illinois. His grandfather and father had worked at the same plant, and Miller had risen to logistics manager. But by his 60s, he’d had enough. He retired “on a Thursday and left Friday morning,” he later told investigators.
“My goal nine or 10 years ago was to retire, come down here, golf three days a week, watch some TV, read some books, mind my own business,” he said. “Then about five years ago, I decided to get actively involved in what was going on in the county, and I still golf two or three days a week.”
In the summer of 2018, Michael Grunwald, reporting for Politico magazine, traveled to The Villages and happened to interview Miller. Miller was just becoming involved in local politics, deciding to run for state representative. He told Grunwald that he had recently been talking to neighbors at a block party, and he mentioned to them how nice it was that a Black neighbor of theirs had taken it upon herself to pick up litter on her daily walk. It was something to be emulated and admired, he thought. “People responded with pure racism,” Miller told Grunwald. “I thought we were past that in America.”
The magazine noted that he and his wife had founded the group Lost Pets of The Villages that would try to connect lost pets with their owners before the kill shelter found adoptive homes or else euthanized them, as it would do as a matter of policy within days. The magazine also reported that Miller, alongside his state representative campaign, became commander of the Community Emergency Response Team, a group of residents who’d quickly respond in the event of a health emergency for another Villager. “I’m doing a very bad job of minding my own business,” he said at the time.
Miller knew going in that, with power vested in a network of corporations acting in coordination with a political party and with control of the media, democratic decision-making potential is extremely limited. Even the area’s county commission had been tweaked to benefit The Villages by a clever bit of election reform. When the community got started, it needed significant upfront investments in infrastructure, something the existing population was uninterested in subsidizing. The wealthier Marion County to the north effectively kept the The Villages out, but the developers were able to make their moves in Sumter County. The company backed a ballot initiative called One Sumter that reorganized the county commission: No longer would each area of the county have a representative on the board. Instead, every commissioner would be elected countywide. With the Daily Sun trumpeting the measure, The Villages muscled through the reform, and in the elections hence, the developers were largely able to pick the commissioners, with the rural areas outside The Villages effectively disenfranchised.
Miller knew he never had a shot against any Republican for state House but ran for the experience. Brett Hage beat him in a blowout in the 2018 election, 70 to 30 percent. But the next year, when The Villages successfully muscled through its property tax increase, Miller decided to run for county commission.
Residents enjoy an outdoor street fair at Lake Sumter Landing in The Villages on Jan. 14, 2023.
Photo: Elise Swain/The Intercept
TO UNDERSTAND HOW Miller went from newly elected commissioner to under investigation by a Florida state attorney, a little background about Florida’s sunshine laws is required.
The state prides itself in its government transparency laws: the Government in the Sunshine Act and the Public Records Act. The Sunshine Act contains two relevant principles for Miller’s saga: County commissioners are not permitted to discuss county business privately with other commissioners; they can only do so publicly at official meetings. And the commissioners may not use a “third-party conduit” for those communications either. The commissioners were sworn in on November 2020 and received a series of trainings on sunshine laws over the next several months.
On February 16, 2021, the county board met at The Villages Sumter County Service Center. The main order of business was a recommendation by the county administrator, Bradley Arnold, that the commission not raise impact fees on businesses but instead negotiate a voluntary impact fee from the developer. The idea was voted down 4-1, according to minutes from the meeting.
As a final order of business, Miller turned to a simmering war between local animal rights advocates — of which he and his wife were two — and supporters of the local kill shelter. He proposed a reconciliation group be formed, and suggested Gary Search as the mediator, based on Search’s background in psychology. (Search is from Allentown, Pennsylvania, as am I, and coincidentally was my sister’s guidance counselor before he retired and moved to The Villages, though I never met Search before reporting on this story.)
“This is news to him, I’m blindsiding him with this,” Miller said of his nomination of Search at the hearing.
“Yes, you are,” Search said, sounding exasperated.
“If you don’t wanna do it, I’m OK. I’m saying he’s got a background in mediation and negotiating, and there’s some strong personalities in that group,” Miller said — referring to a group that included his wife, Angie Fox.
After some discussion among the board members, the county administrator, Arnold, interjected. “There’s a conflict that’s associated with sunshine law issues,” Arnold announced. “The problem that we had was, I had a meeting with Commissioner Search, and he relayed his conversation with Angie Fox that was advocating for this very solution to be presented to the board.”
Arnold, in other words, was accusing Miller of having communicated with Search about the proposal via his wife, in alleged violation of the Government in the Sunshine Act — a conspiracy to break the law in order to create a reconciliation committee aimed at cooling tensions around a high-kill shelter.
Arnold unspooled the evidence he had collected about the conspiracy. “I then had a directive email from Commissioner Miller that said go and do this and use Commissioner Search for that specific purpose,” Arnold continued. “That indicates clearly that Angie Fox is a conduit of communication between two commissioners, which is a violation of open records.”
Arnold said the committee idea should be put on hold awaiting a potential investigation. And he all but encouraged somebody in the audience to file a complaint, and two of them did. “My concern is that, where you have something that unfortunately I became a witness to a violation, that becomes an ethics-related issue,” Arnold said. “If that is filed by someone and the investigation occurs, my concern is, is that you may want to wait until that activity has happened and an investigation has been concluded before you’re involved in anything involving Angie Fox, who’s currently acting as a conduit.”
That, at least, was Arnold’s version of events.
Behind the scenes, however, not only was Arnold already aware that Miller would bring the idea to the board, but Arnold himself — according to an email he sent to the county attorney that was obtained by The Intercept — had also directly encouraged Miller to do so.
On February 11, 2021, Miller had written to Arnold about his idea, according to emails obtained through an open records request by Fox. “I was out golfing today and Angie talked to Commissioner Search,” he wrote. “I don’t know what the conversation was, and I don’t want to know. I just know his background would come in handy to act as a mediator. I don’t know if he would be willing to do this or not, but I think he would.”
“That is a good thought, but I will need Board direction,” Arnold responded, suggesting a future date.“It was a setup,” Fox concluded.
Arnold, in an interview with The Intercept, said that his intervention in the meeting kicked off the resulting investigation. “That’s what ultimately led to the complaint with the State Attorney’s Office,” he said.
Arnold had a backup plan if Miller didn’t bring it up. “If that had not been raised by him at the meeting, it was the plan of the county attorney to share how dangerously close the commissioners are coming to a potential open meetings violation,” Arnold told me. “But before [the county attorney] could provide that support, [Miller] had already proceeded. And then that basically met all of the conditions from my concern that I had raised with the county attorney.”
In other words, Arnold was planning to bring up an allegation of open records violation whether Miller brought up his proposal or not.
But when I asked Arnold if he had encouraged Miller to bring the issue to the board, he flatly denied having done so. “No, absolutely not,” he said.
Presented with the email, Arnold said, “That communication preceded my discovery of the open meetings issue which is covered in the meeting minutes.” However, Miller’s own email alerted Arnold to the fact that his wife and Search had spoken, adding that he didn’t know what they spoke about. Arnold later told Search, according to Search’s testimony, that he had tried to discourage Miller from bringing it up, but no evidence supports that claim. Arnold “said he was disappointed that [Miller] brought it up because he felt his conversation with Mr. Miller indicated that he should not bring it up,” Search said.
A third complaint was filed by former Circuit Court Judge George G. Angeliadis, who had put his name forward to DeSantis in August 2020 for a state Supreme Court opening. That complaint was even more absurd than the other two: Angeliadis had filed an open records request for the documents associated with an animal rights Facebook group run by Fox. Fox explained that the group was public, and Angeliadis could view any of it he liked. He demanded printouts of the entire page, and Fox’s attorney told him she would gladly do so but would need to charge a standard per-page and per-hour rate. He declined and filed a Public Records Act complaint instead, leading to a back-and-forth interrogation of Miller by the local prosecutors over the nature of a Facebook page versus a group. It later came up in court as evidence of Miller’s evasiveness.
Oddly, the three complaints bypassed typical ethics procedures and went directly to Republican State Attorney Bill Gladson. (A more appropriate venue would be the state ethics commission, housed in Tallahassee.) At that point, Miller and Search were on extremely unfavorable terrain. Gladson himself had been elected under unusual circumstances. Just before the deadline to file for reelection in 2020, long serving GOP State Attorney Brad King said that he would not be running for reelection. Gladson’s deputy was ready with his paperwork, and voilà, he became the area’s top prosecutor unopposed.
Also unusually, Gladson took personal control of the rather minor complaints, which, again, focused on the question of whether Fox was acting as a conduit between the two commissioners. In August, Gladson and a team of prosecutors interviewed Search. Estep was also invited to answer questions, but he declined, and the prosecutors never followed up. Citing a potential appeal, Gladson declined to comment on the prosecution.
Angie Fox kisses Jaydon, one of her dogs, at home on Jan. 14, 2023, in The Villages, Fla.
Photo: Elise Swain/The Intercept
A TRANSCRIPT OF Search’s interrogation reveals a room full of Florida men struggling with the peculiar concept of a woman acting independently of her husband. Fox, Search told, had been warned by Miller multiple times that there were concerns that she was acting as a conduit for him, and that she should be careful in how she talked to commissioners. But Fox insisted that she was a taxpayer and entitled to lobby her commissioners on behalf of the cause she cared about most deeply: ending the high-kill shelter’s slaughter of local animals.
Search told investigators about a call he had after a January board meeting in which he had declined to second a motion from her husband, Miller, about a new pet tethering ordinance he was suggesting. The investigators asked how long they had spoken. “Ms. Fox does not talk for a short period of time. I can’t tell you how long it went,” he said, but added that he told her, “You’re Commissioner Miller’s wife, we should not be talking.”
She told him, “I’m not calling you about Commissioner Miller as a wife, I’m calling you as the president of the Lost Pets of The Villages and I’m calling you as a constituent,” Search recalled. “I said, OK, I’ll listen,” Search said. “She just ranted for a while about tethering and things like that.” During the conversation, Fox had mentioned an idea for a reconciliation group to ease the tensions, and Search passed on word to the county administrator, Bradley Arnold, and the county attorney, Jennifer Rey, about the conversation. About two weeks later, in an email to Arnold, Miller proposed a different version of a group, this one with Search moderating it. That’s when Arnold suggested he bring it up at a board meeting.
That may be too much detail, but it’s worth understanding the context that led to the complaint, which itself led to the interrogation about Fox acting as a conduit between the two. During Search’s interrogation, one prosecutor asked Search if he thought Fox was acting of her own volition. “From your seat and from your perspective, is he asking her/telling her to knock it off, or is he using her as a conduit?”
“In my speculation, and it’s pure speculation of watching this the last, I’ll say, year before the election until now, is that Angie is a tremendously free spirit who no male is going to tell her — including a husband — what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and what to say. And a husband who is not going to go down that path,” Search answered.
“I get it,” said the prosecutor.
“No, you really wouldn’t get it unless you really met her,” Search said.
“I don’t think my wife is a conduit for me. I might be a conduit for her.”
In October, Miller was subpoenaed by the state attorney, despite repeatedly attempting to schedule a meeting in response to an invitation. The subpoena added to the breathless coverage in the Daily Sun.
Under oath, he told Bill Gladson the same thing as Search. His wife was her own woman. “I don’t think my wife is a conduit for me. I might be a conduit for her. She was the big animal rights advocate to begin with and I’m kind of supporting her on those issues. She brought those concerns to me, not me to her,” he tried to explain.
The prosecutors expressed confusion. “For the life of me I can’t understand why you don’t see that this was clearly a conduit situation; I mean, you know all about the positions she’s on, you know about the emails she’s sent, you know she’s having communications with other county commissioners because you’ve seen these emails,” said one prosecutor.
“Right,” said Miller, “but she’s a voter, she’s a taxpayer. She’s not telling me how to vote or what to vote or — she’s not controlling me, she’s trying to be a citizen and a voter and a constituent.”
Apparently recognizing the cul-de-sac they’d found themselves in, prosecutors never went forward with the conduit charge.
IN MID-OCTOBER 2021, Ron DeSantis returned to The Villages for his 20th visit since becoming governor. He had even signed the state’s budget at The Villages. He was there this time to award the county a $6 million grant for road improvements.
Search saw Gary Lester, The Villages vice president who had previously promised to squash him like a bug, and reached out to shake his hand. “Get away from me, you liar,” Lester told him, Search recalled. He waited until after the event and asked him why he had said that.
“Why would you even do that as a fellow Christian brother?” Search asked.
“Don’t get religious with me,” Lester replied, according to Search, who asked again what he was trying to say.
“You’re gonna find out soon enough why you’re a liar,” Search said Lester told him. “And I said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Lester, but I haven’t lied about anything.’ And he said, ‘You’re gonna find out.’ And I kind of just took that tongue in cheek, like, OK, I’m not gonna get anywhere with this person.” At lunch after the event, he said, he told Bradley Arnold about the exchange, and Arnold told him not to worry about it, that Lester was just unhappy that Search was on the commission. (Arnold didn’t respond to request for comment on that exchange.) Search was disturbed enough by the encounter that he told his friend Gilbert Windsor from New Covenant United Methodist Church about it that evening, Windsor told me.
In December, Search would come to suspect what Lester seemed to be hinting at. Prosecutors had instead decided to charge both Search and Miller with perjury, saying they lied about the nature of their phone calls with each other. “I never put two and two together until two months later when you get the phone call,” he said, describing the moment he learned he was being charged with perjury. “And it’s like, wait a second, how would he — he had to have known? And why in the world would the state attorney be talking to him?” (Gladson declined to comment.)
Search and Miller, phone records showed, spoke somewhat frequently from November 2020 to February 2021. And, they readily admitted, they had occasionally discussed commission business before they were fully trained and understood that doing so ran afoul of sunshine laws.
The transcript of Gladson’s interview with Miller includes the supposed crime he is convicted of committing:
Miller: We got elected in November, the phone calls probably stopped in January or February when we all realized that could be an issue.
Gladson: Got it.
Miller: So I can’t give you the exact date they stopped, but it was somewhere in there.
Another prosecutor added: “Of more concern, sir, is that I asked you — I think a specific question: Do you have phone conversations with Mr. Search?”
Miller: I did.
Prosecutor: After January?
Miller’s “no” to “After January?” would be used as the basis for a perjury charge, despite his having said multiple times elsewhere in the interview that he’s uncertain about when the calls stopped.
Gadson and his deputies showed Miller some phone records, showing calls in January, and also one on February 17, and another in March, and asked what they were about.
“In all honesty, I do not know what it was about, I don’t.”
“But you had phone conversations with him?”
“Yes, I promise you we had phone calls.”
“So it could have been county business?”
“We did not discuss anything the county was working on, anything we voted on or anything we were going to vote on, or anything that was coming up in front of us,” Miller said.
“Well, how do you know? You don’t remember what the phone calls were about.”
“Because we know from the ethics training we couldn’t do that,” Miller explained.
In the moment, Miller said he didn’t remember what most of the calls were about, and prosecutors didn’t show him a calendar or give him any heads up that might have let him cross-check his schedule. But some of the calls, Miller recalled, were about a golf outing. Some were to arrange who was going to bring apple fritters from Dough J’s for the staff at meetings. (The fritters took up an inordinate amount of time in Miller’s interrogation. Dough J’s was way out of the way, so the pickups had to be coordinated.) Some of the calls, he said, were about church functions or Covid relief. But none, after their training, were about active commission business, he said.
Scott Fenstermaker, a retired attorney and former FBI agent who lives in The Villages, knows both Search and Miller, and would talk to them about county business, he told me. “They would both say, don’t tell me what these other guys have said to me because I don’t want people to think you’re a conduit,” Fenstermaker said. “They were being very careful to observe the Sunshine Act.”
Miller’s lawyer later noted in a motion to vacate the conviction that Miller readily admitted to having violated the Sunshine Act, at least until January and February — undermining the idea that he lied to avoid implicating himself in breaking the law. The perjury charge, in other words, concerned when the calls stopped, but that fact is actually irrelevant to the question of whether they violated the law. And, again, prosecutors never charged either Miller or Search with violating any sunshine laws.
Yet in December 2021, Gladson charged both commissioners with felony perjury, punishable by up to five years in prison. DeSantis stepped in and issued executive orders removing them from the commission.
“Two things are happening here: intimidation and humiliation,” Search said in January 2022, addressing The Villages’ Property Owners’ Association. “The second thing is … to intimidate any other candidate from running against the local government that they’ve controlled for so long.”
Throughout the whole episode, the Daily Sun routinely published Search’s and Miller’s mugshots. And the opposition to The Villages’ political machine was quickly eroding. Cliff Weiner, president of the Property Owners’ Association, spoke after Search. “I had a lot of people who were lined up to run in 2022 for the two seats that were open. Andrew is the only one who’s still standing,” he said, referring to a candidate in the audience Search had pointed out. “And some people that were gonna run in 2024 in other offices, slowly but surely they’re all dropping. They don’t want to go through what Gary and Oren are going through right now. That’s a sad state of affairs that we live in a community that people are afraid to run because if you win, you’re on the wrong side.”
“I’m also very disappointed in our governor,” Search added. “He made a financial move, but I think a very terrible political move. Hopefully when these charges are dropped, because they are all false, I hope the governor and I have a long talk.”
Soon, Search and Miller were drowning in legal bills. Search also had surgery scheduled, plus his medication schedule made a prison term less than ideal. He cut a deal with prosecutors to testify at Miller’s trial in exchange for avoiding prison and ending the legal battle. The deal barred him from for running for office for six months, blocking him from the next election.
But Search’s testimony was not, in the end, damning to Miller. Search confirmed that the two of them had spoken by phone after January or February, but they weren’t discussing commission business. They would, for instance, coordinate on who would bring which snacks to a meeting. Search did admit to bringing up the no-kill kennel plan with Miller sometime in the summer of 2021, cutting against their claims that they stopped discussing county matters privately after January or February. But that conversation didn’t happen by phone, so it isn’t relevant to the perjury charge.
Miller’s jury was empaneled on November 14, 2022, by Judge Anthony Tatti, who had previously put his name forward to DeSantis, hoping for an elevation to the state Supreme Court. The judge did two things. First, he empaneled the jury on a Monday but delayed the trial until Friday. Then he told them that under no circumstances should they go home and read coverage of the case in the local Daily Sun. Doing so might bias them, he said.
Miller’s attorney, Dock Blanchard, was flabbergasted, and later objected, showing the judge the biased coverage that he had elevated to the jury’s attention. “This is a newspaper, not a motion,” the judge told him, overruling his objection.
Not a single prosecution witness presented evidence that Search and Miller had talked about commission business on the phone after the time they said the calls stopped. But the existence of the calls themselves — perhaps coupled with relentless Daily Sun coverage — was sufficient circumstantial evidence to convict, the jury of six found.
Miller was floored. His attorney asked that he be allowed to go free on bond to await sentencing, but the judge rejected it, sending the 72-year-old out of the courtroom in handcuffs on the afternoon of November 18.
The Village’s local newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun, on Jan. 31, 2023.
Photo: Ryan Grim/The Intercept
TWO AND A HALF months later, and some 20 pounds lighter, Miller was back before Tatti for sentencing. The Daily Sun had run a front-page story that morning on the sentencing, calling Miller a “convicted felon.” Dozens of his friends and supporters packed the courtroom as Miller, cuffed again, was escorted in. He was hunched over, now bearded, wearing an orange-and-white striped jumpsuit.
The last 74 days had been an ordeal. There are about 1,800 people in the county’s lockup facility; Miller was in a pod with 80, he said, but there were just 56 seats for meals. On his first day, a jailmate offered to adopt him and get him a seat at meals in exchange for some of his food, a bargain he eagerly accepted. On the second day, he said, he won protection from a gang leader. “Oren Miller, you are protected in here because you’re a senior citizen,” the man said, according to Miller. “‘But understand, don’t cross any lines.’ … And so I minded my p’s and q’s.” Violence broke out regularly, Miller recounted, and he watched two men beaten nearly to death. He moved to try to break up the first fight, but two men held him back, explaining that if he got involved, he’d be called later as a witness, and you don’t want to be a witness against somebody who sleeps in the same open room as you. So he let them fight.
Miller went days without his heart or thyroid medication, and grew weak and dizzy. Complaining of chest pain, he was eventually given an EKG, which the staff told him showed no problems. “My EKG hasn’t been good in 15 years,” he said. “I will never have a good EKG. I’ve got an irregular heartbeat all the time.” He said they gave him medication despite claiming to detect no heart trouble — the same type of heart medication he’d been prescribed but hadn’t been getting.
His logistics training from Caterpillar came in handy, and he devised a system for the headcount process which worked so well that the unit’s numbers were correct more often, meaning they rarely got punished for the wrong count anymore. He could see the guard coming from a neighboring unit, and Miller would yell “Headcount!”: a signal for the men to move to the predesignated places to be counted. He taught his jailmates how to document abuse and negligence when it occurred, so that if they later filed a complaint, they’d have something to stand it up. When he left the unit for what he hoped would be the last time, he turned around and yelled to the men: “Headcount!”
They all shouted back: “Headcount!”
Tatti began by acknowledging Miller’s motion for a new trial and quickly dismissing it. The judge reprimanded Miller’s attorney, Blanchard, for Facebook posts from Miller’s supporters saying that he had been “railroaded,” and asked if that was the argument Miller was planning to make at sentencing. It was not, Blanchard said, and asked to call three character witnesses.
Fox, ahead of the sentencing, had put out a request for testimonials. What came back shocked even her. If Miller saw somebody eating alone in a restaurant, friends said, he’d pay for their meal. If service was particularly good, he’d insist on speaking to the manager to compliment the staff. If he saw a veteran in a grocery store, he’d pay for their groceries. (“Oren doesn’t have much money,” Fox told me afterward, her pride mixed with a little financial concern.)
A 19-year-old young man from southern Sumter County, outside The Villages, took the stand to call him “the greatest man I’ve ever met,” saying Miller had mentored him since he was 14, including sitting with him as a loved one passed. The last time he saw him for lunch, Miller brought him a stack of used iPads he had collected, and instructed him to take them to a local repairman (at Miller’s expense) and donate them to local high school students in need.
When a family lost their home to a fire, Miller organized the effort to rebuild their lives. When Hurricane Irma hit, Miller didn’t wait for the winds to have fully died down before organizing recovery efforts. There didn’t seem to be a church charity program he wasn’t involved in or leading. Another man described the emergency response team Miller had set up. The first time he got a call, he said, he rushed to the distressed home in two minutes max, but when he got there, he found Miller already in the bathroom, doing chest compressions on a man in cardiac arrest. If somebody lost a pet, said another friend, Miller and Fox would drop everything and go searching immediately. “If it was 2 a.m., they wouldn’t say, we’ll be there at 7. They’d be there right away,” said one woman.
There was no victim, no violence, and Miller had no record. The pre-sentencing report called for time served and 30 months probation. The prosecution, in a subtle nod to the absurdity of the penalty, asked for less: time served and 24 months of probation. But Assistant State Attorney Sasha Kidney still laid into him. “The defendant has shown zero remorse,” said Kidney.
In the hallway, I asked her if she felt like justice was served in the case. “I think the jury listened to the evidence that was presented and returned a verdict based on that, and it was up to them and they made their decision,” she said.
The Daily Sun, also in the hallway, wanted more blood, and asked if the original investigation into sunshine law violations was still open. “Not to my knowledge at this point,” she said. The Daily Sun reporter pressed the question again. “I can’t really answer that question. It may still be open. I don’t know,” she said.
The next morning’s coverage of the sentencing, above the fold on the front page, would headline “Convicted Felon Miller Released from Jail: Legal Woes Not Over.” The article used the assistant state attorney’s answer to hang a new sword over Miller’s neck, reporting: “Prosecutors have not yet said they have closed the investigation into Miller’s potential Sunshine Law violations, and he remains under investigation by the state’s Commission on Ethics over an online fundraiser he created for the public to bankroll his lawyers.” (His GoFundMe to cover legal fees for his appeal remains open and is accepting contributions.)
Back in the courtroom, Tatti decided to add 200 hours of community service to Miller’s sentence, too, but he had a problem: How to punish a man with forced service who gives the bulk of his time in service to the community already? The judge’s solution: On top of going above the sentencing recommendation to give him 36 months of probation, Tatti ordered him to perform his community service at the local landfill.
P.S. Below are just a handful of the photos Fox sent me of volunteer work Miller’s done, the kind that puts us all to shame. And also a happy one:
Oren Miller, the morning after his release, enjoying what Angie Fox called “those stupid apple fritters” from Dough J’s, the ones that had caused so much trouble.