Armed security guards at St. Pete polling place were hired by Pinellas County GOP, police report says

Pinellas County

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) — Two different people told law enforcement that the Pinellas County Republican Party hired armed security guards to stand at a GOP tent outside a downtown St. Petersburg polling site last month while early voting was taking place, according to a police report obtained by 8 On Your Side.

The incident happened at 5:26 p.m. on Oct. 21 at the County Building polling place located at 501 1st Avenue North. Initial reports indicated that the guards said they were hired by the Trump campaign. The campaign denied any involvement.

The newly-obtained report from the St. Pete Police Department says that a Pinellas County GOP volunteer, Robby Thurston, set up a table near the election office to provide information to the public. Thurston then told the officer that Executive Director Charlotte Smith “hired two licensed security officers to be with him in case an incident should arise,” the report says.

Smith told 8 On Your Side she “does not have the authority” to hire security officers, and deferred to Pinellas County GOP Chairman Todd Jennings for comment.

Jennings told 8 On Your Side it was all a misunderstanding.

“At no time did any employee or volunteer of the Pinellas GOP direct any security guard to be present at a polling location,” Jennings said Friday evening in a statement to 8 On Your Side. “The volunteer who allegedly made the statement to the St. Pete Police Department reported to various news sources the next day that it was all his misunderstanding.”

The two armed guards were Mackensy Dessources and Patricia Garcon, who are both employed by SYOTOS Security, according to the report. Dessources also told the officers that they were hired by Smith, and were “instructed to be at the election office with Thurston every day from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. until the election is over,” according to the report.

The day after the incident, SYOTOS owner Trei McMullen told 8 On Your Side that none of his guards were hired to be there, and that only one of the two worked for him. He said his employee was “off duty” and “not affiliated with the polling booth.”

8 On Your Side reached out to McMullen again on Friday, but he did not return any requests for comment.

Election staffers fielded at least four complaints from various people who told staffers “they felt intimidated when they walked by the security officers to get to the election office,” though the report also notes they “didn’t block their path or approach them.”

In a news conference the following day, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the guards didn’t violate the law.

“The mere presence of uniformed, licensed, Florida-authorized security personnel is not violative of the law,” Gualtieri said.

In a statement released to 8 On Your Side on Friday, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said Gualtieri’s comments at the time were accurate.

The sheriff stands by his statement made at the media availability (October 22, 2020) because it was current and accurate as he knew it at the time. There remains a discrepancy between what is reported in the SPPD report, what the security guards state, and what Charlotte Smith states. Charlotte Smith states to this day that she did not hire any security guards for the St. Pete site, regardless of what is contained in the SPPD report, and we cannot reconcile the discrepancy. We also cannot reconcile the discrepancy between what is in the SPPD report and the security guards’ statements.  We will have no further comment on this and we refer you to the Pinellas Republican Party or SPPD for any further statement.

Statement from Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office released Nov. 13, 2020

After being interviewed by the officers on Oct. 21, the report says “Thurston and both security officers packed up their belongings and left the area, due to the fact that it was 6 p.m. and their time had ended.”

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