Education Advocate to Face Up to 30 Years in Prison for Extortion Conviction
A Florida trial aimed to determine whether an education advocate was doing his job or extorting a school district official for money.
A six-person jury convicted Clarence Shahid Freeman of extortion and unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior last week.
The line between advocating and extorting was on trial, but it only took jurors 18 minutes to come back with a guilty verdict on both second-degree felonies. Freeman could face up to 30 years in prison and will remain in jail until his July 12 sentencing hearing.
During the trial, Freeman’s lawyer, Charles White, described his client as an advocate for Palm Beach County Schools, according to the Palm Beach Post’s live reporting of the three-day trial. His straight shooting got him caught up with then superintendent Wayne Gent, whom he depicted as a corrupt public official who coerced Freeman into what prosecutors alleged was extortion.
“Shahid has the courage to bring your grievance to the person who is going to make the decision,” White said during opening statements. “That's why people come to Shahid. You'll hear that they call it 'access with attitude.'”
There was no evidence that Freeman would benefit from any of his actions, but prosecutors continually called his actions into question. The assistant state attorneys on the case depicted Freeman as a man willing to go to extreme lengths, including extortion, to get what he wanted, according to the Palm Beach Post. They claimed he promised to make Gent’s alleged sexual transgression go away in exchange for money for a reading program and an employee cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
“This was Mr. Freeman’s show,” Marci Rex, a Palm Beach County assistant state attorney, said during opening statements. “He wanted to do things his way, behind closed doors.”
Freeman presented school board members in 2013 with an anonymous letter from a female employee who wrote about Gent forcing her to perform a sex act in his office, among other allegations, according to the Palm Beach Post. He presented the letter in a school board meeting while trying to reconcile an employee complaint from Brantley Sisnett, who had been moved to a lower-level position after being accused of stealing money from the school district. A jury had acquitted him of all charges, but the district still was determining whether he violated school policy and had not reinstated him to his prior position.
He later met with Gent—who had reported the letter to authorities and was working with them on the case—and schools union chief Terri Miller (then Terri Matthews) at a local restaurant where Freeman, prosecutors concluded from audio recordings they made of the meeting, offered to make the sexual misconduct claims disappear in exchange for a $895,000 payout to Sisnett, the move of a charter school and the approval of Dot’s Success Academy—the Saturday morning reading program where Freeman had worked part-time and for which he had continued to advocate.
Prosecutors claimed, for the first time, in closing arguments that Freeman was the anonymous letter’s author, which White later denied, saying there was no proof presented.
“He knows he can take care of this anonymous letter, because the person who wrote the anonymous letter doesn't exist,” Dan Reiter, the other assistant state attorney on the case, said. “It's Mr. Freeman.”
Freeman did not testify in his own defense because it was not necessary since the state needed to meet the burden of proof, his lawyer argued in his closing arguments.
“We're not here to decide whether the letter is true or false,” White said. “We're here to decide whether or not Mr. Freeman was here with a malicious intent to gain something—money. … Forcing the superintendent to look into something he should be looking into, I assure you, is not what was contemplated by the extortion statute.”
Reiter also compared an advocate to a sports agent, noting regardless of his intentions, Freeman still had to do things the right way.
“If you really are concerned about a civil rights issue, or someone's sexual misconduct, you don't bring it up in a dispute about someone else's employment issue,” he said.
His colleague closed by saying Freeman was not an advocate.
“He knows the right way to do things, but he chose to do it this way, in the dark,” Rex said.
The West Palm Beach Post summed up the case in a sentence during its coverage of the verdict:
Now, instead of implementing the Saturday morning reading program that had been one of his demands in the 2013 exchange with Gent, Freeman faces up to 30 years in prison.