Profile: Brock’s Way—Or Else
With his uncompromising approach to legal and auditing matters, Collier County Clerk of Court Dwight Brock often finds himself in the midst of controversy.
When it comes to dealing with Collier County’s Clerk of Court Dwight Brock, don’t go looking for middle ground or shades of gray. There’s black, and there’s white. There’s right, and there’s wrong. There’s admiration, and there’s disdain.
But there’s not much in between, either from those who know Brock or from Brock himself. Brock has held the elected post since 1992, but he’s the first to say he’s not a politician, and baby-kissing, backslapping and kidding around are not in his skill set. “I’m a technician,” Brock says, with a job that demands legal and accounting skills as well as auditing—the role that’s had him under the hottest spotlight. (Although most recently he’s been in the news for his legal battle over the fees he wants to charge a reporter for public records.)
“Dwight lives and breathes the law and the Constitution,” says former State Attorney Joe D’Alessandro, who hired Brock straight out of law school as an assistant state attorney in Naples. “He’s quiet, very straightforward. He can’t tell a joke to save his life, but he knows the law.”
Former state Sen. Burt Saunders of Naples has also known Brock for decades. He says Brock “constantly works to ensure things are done by the absolute letter of the law. There are no shortcuts with Dwight. He doesn’t need his ego stroked, and he doesn’t care whose feathers he ruffles if he thinks he’s right.”
Brock’s unwavering belief that what he does is right is noted by friend and foe alike, sometimes favorably, other times not. Some refuse to talk about him, saying they worry about finding themselves under an auditor’s microscope, or about other retaliation.
Brock, 61, pooh-poohs such notions. If they have nothing to hide, he says, why be concerned? An audit might be inconvenient or uncomfortable. But if the end result is a better way of doing business, what’s so bad about that?
Even his friends hint that tact may not be Brock’s strong suit. One Brock supporter, former Collier fiscal officer Harold Hall, is unwavering in his admiration for the clerk, yet acknowledges that Brock might benefit from being more “political”—not as in policy-making, but in seeking out compromises, occasionally using a little more honey and a bit less vinegar.
“He won’t do it,” Hall says. “What he cares about is following the letter of the law and the Constitution. He really does not care if the (newspaper) likes him or the commissioners like him. Things might be easier for him if he cared more. But he doesn’t. What he does care about is making sure taxpayers’ money is spent right.”
It seems to work. After several elections without opposition, Brock faced a challenger in 2012. Brock won handily, 66 percent to 33 percent. Most politicians would proclaim that margin to the rooftops in the face of criticism. Not Brock. “I don’t do what I do because of the political winds, or whether I think people will like it,” he says. “I do it because it’s the right thing to do. My parents were Southern Baptists, and that’s the way they raised me.”
Advancing by Degrees
Brock still speaks in the southern cadences of his Panhandle roots. He grew up in the tiny town of Vernon, north of Panama City, where his father was the postmaster and his mother a fifth-grade teacher.
They lived on the family farm, where they also raised sheep, cattle and some crops. But that wasn’t the life he was expected to live. “Going to college was not an option,” Brock says. “It was understood that was what we would do.”
He got his bachelor’s degree in business and accounting, then an MBA and a law degree, adding CPA credentials to his resume along the way.
His older brother Jerry was working for D’Alessandro as an assistant state attorney when Dwight graduated from law school. D’Alessandro hired the younger brother as well, and says they proved their worth early, in Southwest Florida’s most notorious murder trial.
In the mid-1980s, Margaret Benson and her adopted son Scott were killed when two pipe bombs exploded under their car at their Quail Creek home. A daughter also in the car was burned and almost died while another son, Steven, watched from the house. Steven was charged and convicted of murder; the weeks-long trial drew intense national and international news coverage and was later detailed in books and movies.
People still ask D’Alessandro why he assigned such a high-profile case to young, less-known prosecutors. “They were my secret weapon,” D’Alessandro says. “Jerry was a star in the courtroom, and Dwight was a bulldog on investigation and every detail of the law. And—I never told anybody this—I knew they came from a little town up in north Florida where they grew up in a hardworking family. I knew this would mean a lot to them; I knew they’d work to prove they could do it. And they did. They were magnificent.”
Brock settled into his role with that office, handling mostly white-collar crime and investigatory work that kept him traveling through the five-county circuit.
By 1992, he was ready for a change. He’d just gotten married, and the travel was less appealing. The clerk of court was up for election. Brock considered his CPA and accounting background, his legal experience and community recognition from his trial work. “I certainly knew the judicial system,” he says. “I thought clerk would be a good fit for me.”
He won, and took a year or so to observe the office functions. One aspect that caught his eye was the clerk’s fiduciary duty, the role of custodian over taxpayers’ money. To Brock, that meant audits, and audits were not being done.
The county commission and top staff were changing at the same time. D’Alessandro dealt with commissioners in the circuit, and he predicted Collier’s fireworks. “They got new commissioners, then Dwight wants to do audits that had never been done before,” D’Alessandro says. “A lot of (officials) didn’t want to be audited, and Dwight was shaking their trees. And once you get a reputation for shaking the trees, it’s hard to shake that reputation.”
The dispute turned into a lawsuit that lasted about seven years, with county commissioners fighting the clerk over auditing powers. It ended with a Florida Supreme Court ruling that upheld Brock’s ability to audit. The financial costs were estimated around $4 million; the ensuing ill will is incalculable.
“My role is designed to ensure that what they are doing is right and legal,” Brock says of the legal battle. “The pushback to that idea was remarkable at best. I’d call it stunning.”
Former Collier County Commissioner Jim Colletta was on the board during those years. He says Brock was infringing on commissioners’ responsibility to ensure expenditures are legal. “Dwight blows things out of proportion,” Colletta says. “He’s always looking for the smoking gun. … He runs the job like he’s still a prosecutor. You might have a problem that’s just the result of a misunderstanding or someone not knowing what’s supposed to be done, and he acts like it’s a major crime.”
Brock, for his part, insists he simply follows the law. Few people ever hear about the good audits he does or positive findings, he says. It’s the problems that always get attention, and few people like having their problems aired in public. “A lot of politicians just don’t like having people take a look at what they’re doing,” he says.
Plenty of Controversy
Regardless, Brock continued. After defeating one opponent in 1996, he went 16 years without an election challenge. Other candidates, meanwhile, seek him out for help and guidance—which Brock finds curious, “since I don’t consider myself to be a good politician”—but he doesn’t endorse and treats all equally.
With one exception: Commissioner Georgia Hiller, now seeking re-election to her second term. Hiller, also a CPA and attorney, worked for Brock in the past, and he describes her as exceptionally well-qualified. “We don’t always agree, but I still say she’s brilliant,” he says.
Hiller returns the compliment, also praising Brock’s accounting expertise and legal knowledge. “He’s a good person who’s done a lot of great things, and I admire and respect him,” she says. But she admits to some frustration at “his one-size-fits-all management style.”
“Sometimes he thinks his way is the only way of doing things,” she says. “Not everything has to be a fight with a sledgehammer. You don’t have to treat somebody who just misunderstands something the same way you treat a criminal committing fraud.”
Brock’s most recent controversies involve HOME, a nonprofit formed in 2008 by several Collier business and community leaders to help provide affordable housing. The group uses private and public money, and the board includes John Barlow, who lost to Brock in 2012, and Gina Downs, who ran unsuccessfully against Hiller in 2010.
In January, Brock made a well-publicized critique of HOME’s finances, alleging they misused government money and calling for law enforcement to step in. Critics say Brock was driven by political retribution; Brock says anyone who gets public money should expect oversight and inspection. Barlow and others involved with that case declined to comment for this story.
A few weeks later, a reporter who wrote stories critical of Brock asked for more records from his office, and was told the cost would be almost $560, higher than expected for public records. The reporter, Gina Edwards of Watchdog City Press, filed a lawsuit over the fees, saying the cost was retaliation for her stories, and exceeded costs allowed by law. Brock argued over the definition of “public records”; a judge in late March upheld the reporter. But less than a month later, Brock decided to appeal the ruling. A trial was scheduled for just prior to the publication date of this story. To add to the curiosity surrounding this case, soon all such records will be available in full online as ordered by the Florida Supreme Court. The legal fees for this case will dramatically dwarf the amount he would collect.
Brock still says he’ll put his record in court up against anyone, that he’s won more often than not. He doesn’t fret over public reaction or charges that he’s made the office “personal.”
“I know it’s hard for some people to believe, but I do not do things because I’m concerned whether somebody will like it or not,” he says. “I do not have a political agenda. I take the law and I apply it the same way to everybody. I do the right thing. That’s the way my parents taught me, and I’ve found over the years that’s the easiest way to live your life.”
If his health stays good, he’ll run for re-election in 2016 and beyond. No other office interests him. Others, he says, are too political.
Hometown: Vernon, in Florida’s Panhandle
Education: Business/accounting degree from Florida State University, 1975; MBA from Stetson University, 1979; law degree from Nova University, 1982
Career: Hired after law school as assistant state attorney in Southwest Florida’s 20th Judicial Circuit, worked there until elected as Collier County Clerk of Court in 1992; re-elected since
Family: Married, one son at the University of Central Florida
Enjoys: Spending time on the Panhandle farm still owned by the family; hunting and fishing; woodworking; the family dogs—labs and a Brittany spaniel