News & Politics

Paging Ron DeSantis: Journalist Faces 20 Years in Prison for Investigating Corruption at Fla. Women's Shelter

(Image credit: Tom Lemons)

Governor Ron DeSantis better sit up and pay attention to what’s happening in his state. Investigative journalist Tom Lemons had a career as a small-town newsman covering police activity, politics, and county business until one day, he dug into a scandal no one wanted him to find.

Lemons began investigating reports that the Dawn Center, a domestic violence shelter in Hernando County, wasn’t what it was purported to be. Lemons interviewed former employees and women who sought shelter there who told a much different story of a government-funded flophouse with no rules and blatant theft of donations.

“The house was disgusting, filthy, gross…it’s a horrible place,” said one resident. “There were girls outside smoking pot, shooting dope in their cars,” recalled another. Residents also reported witnessing child abuse that went unreported. “Some of the women there would pull their three-year-old kid’s hair straight up and the staff wouldn’t say anything.” Former employees said they saw women drugging their children with bottles of melatonin so they could go out and party. Fathers reported that their ex-wives would kidnap their children in custody disputes and hide them inside the Dawn Center and the sheriff refused to go in and get them.

Lemons found that the Hernando County Sheriff’s office responded to huge numbers of calls to the Dawn Center, which wasn’t consistent with the rate from other shelters in the area. The Dawn Center receives huge amounts of federal money for victims of domestic violence through the Victims of Crime Act. But the women who have lived there say that the funding didn’t go to help them.

When Lemons began investigating where the money went, he ended up losing his job. He was kicked off the county grounds and is no longer allowed to report there. He is now on trial after being arrested in what he says is a cooked-up scheme to silence him. Lemons wrote a book about the charges against him called Victim Shopping 101 and says the sheriff went shopping for victims to accuse him of crimes to get him off the investigation. Lemons says he’s never met his accusers.

The Florida legislature got into the circus act and passed laws that, when put into place, will make Lemons’ documentary illegal. (Download it now before they force it off YouTube.)

Senate Bill 70 makes it a first degree misdemeanor, or a felony upon a second or subsequent conviction, for any person to maliciously publish, disseminate, or disclose any descriptive information or image that may identify the location of a certified domestic violence center.

Why did they do this? Lemons’ drone footage of the Dawn Center from the air embarrassed a lot of people. After Lemons got the footage of the run-down shelter—with cars all over the lot, overgrown grass, and trash lying around—lawmakers made it illegal for anyone to take footage of a domestic violence shelter, claiming privacy concerns for the women there.

Lemons told PJ Media the law is absurd.

The shelter promotes their services and fundraising events all the time on social media. They have a Facebook page with all their staff for public view. There is also a website that gives the addresses and posts images of most domestic violence shelters around Florida. It just proves this law was created for one reason. To prevent my film from being distributed and force me to remove it.

If his documentary is removed, the women who say they were harmed by the Dawn Center will be silenced. Lemons interviewed many whistleblowers in his film. Former resident Ashley Weider has recordings of police intimidation when she came forward about the rampant drug use and prostitution happening on the Dawn Center grounds. Sheriff’s deputies came to her house and threatened to put her in jail if she was “lying.” This event, she says, triggered a suicide attempt that led to the loss of her children.

Why would the sheriff’s deputies do this? Maybe it’s because the sheriff himself is on the board of the Dawn Center that is receiving all kinds of money from the feds. Lemons’ documentary should be seen widely. Instead of investigating what looks like rampant corruption and abuse, the local media turned on Lemons, writing hit pieces about his politics and attendance at the January 6th rally for the president that ended in chaos. The local media has no interest in the multitude of eyewitness accounts that Lemons uncovered. Their only interest is in smearing the messenger.

Where have I heard this story before? St. Louis, Missouri. When hundreds of people came forward to members of the press begging for someone to listen to them claiming that family court is corrupt, the St. Louis press remained silent with the lone exception of KMOV, which did one mediocre nine-minute segment that left out all the important outrages against families. Since then, despite multiple new stories of horror, including child suicide and murder, the press has kept a tight lid on any allegations of corruption in the St. Louis County court system.

Related: Distraught Missouri Parents Hold Press Conference to Call Out Family Court Corruption; St. Louis Press Ignores Them

I sat down with Lemons and interviewed him about the pending charges against him and what he uncovered in this Florida county and the similarities between his investigation and mine—which has also uncovered some strange things happening with domestic violence funds that I haven’t been able to report yet. You can see that interview here. Watch his documentary before it’s illegal to do so.

Why are journalists being jailed for investigating wrongdoing by public officials? Who will fight for the freedom of the press to chase a story no matter where it leads? The lawmakers in Florida ought to be ashamed of themselves for not calling for investigations into the Dawn Center and, instead, writing laws to allow them to continue operating under the cover of darkness. Where is Governor DeSantis on this? Where are the champions of transparency? Audit the Dawn Center, not Tom Lemons. 

Lemons says the fight has bankrupted him. He has a GoFundMe where people can donate to help him with the legal costs involved in fighting back. Lemons, if convicted of the charges against him, could serve up to 20 years in prison.