Van Zants accused of improper homestead exemption

Charles Van Zant paid $8,716.28 to Bradford County Tax Collector after Property Appraiser's Office said homestead exemption was improperly received

An anonymous email sent to the Bradford County Appraiser’s Office triggered an investigation into a Keystone Heights house owned by state Rep. Charles Van Zant and led the four-term state representative to pay more than $8,000 in back taxes for a homestead exemption on property that was not his “permanent legal residence,” documents sent to the Palatka Daily News reveal.

The email and subsequent documents come less than a month before an Aug. 30 primary, in which Van Zant’s wife, Katherine Van Zant, is running to replace her term-limited husband in the 19th District. Katherine Van Zant faces former Florida GOP chairwoman Leslie Dougher and Palatka resident and political neophyte Bobby Payne.

On Wednesday morning, the Bradford County Property Appraiser’s Office confirmed the authenticity of the documents. The Palatka Daily News received the emails from a fake email address Tuesday evening.

The Daily News received the documents a second time in an email from County Commissioner Chip Laibl two hours later. According to that email, Laibl and St. Johns River State College President and former state Sen. Joe Pickens received the email from Phil Leary, a lobbyist based out of St. Johns County who previously served as a Palatka city commissioner. Leary received the email from the same fake email account as the Palatka Daily News.

According to the documents, the Bradford County Property Appraisers received an anonymous email June 12 suggesting the Van Zants’ 127 SE 35th St. property in Keystone Heights “had been receiving a homestead exemption but no one had lived there for years.”

“We began the review and process that we follow in all similar situations,” the document says. “Our review concluded that the property owner had been receiving an exemption to which they were not entitled.”

On June 29, Bradford County Deputy Appraiser Shelly R. Bowen sent Charles Van Zant a letter informing him about the anonymous report.

According to the letter, state law says if the property appraiser determines a person received a homestead exemption for which they were not entitled, they must pay the unpaid taxes, a 50 percent penalty and 15 percent interest per year.

According to the documents, Bradford County Property Appraiser officials met with Charles Van Zant and attorney Dan Sikes on July 8, 15 and 18. Sikes is the Clay County School District board attorney. Van Zant’s son, Charles Van Zant Jr., is the Clay County Schools superintendent. Sikes is also running for Bradford County judge.

“During these meetings, we informed the owner of our determination and of our intent to assess and collect the taxes that were escaped for the years 2008 through 2015, as prescribed by Florida law,” the documents say.

On July 25, Bowen sent another letter to the Van Zants and told them they owned $8,716.28  because during a “physical inspection of the property we found it to be abandoned and we have determined that the … property is not your permanent legal residence.”

Charles Van Zant paid the back taxes and fines the same day to the Bradford County Tax Collector’s Office.

Katherine Van Zant emailed a statement to the Palatka Daily News.

“For 22 years the home owned by my husband in Keystone Heights has been our permanent residence and continues to be our permanent residence,” she wrote. “Because of remodeling to the home, our family has split time staying between there and another residence owned by our son, only 2 miles away. 

“It is our belief (and the belief of my husband’s legal counsel) that under Florida law, during circumstances like this, that the property would continue to be considered our permanent address and be eligible for him to claim a homestead exemption.”

Katherine Van Zant said her husband is appealing the Property Appraiser’s ruling to the Bradford County Value Adjustment Board.

“Personally, I am not, and never have been, an owner on the property and therefore I have not claimed a homestead exemption on the property at any point,” Katherine Van Zant said. 

Dougher, a Clay County resident and real estate agent, had a copy of the Bradford County Property Appraiser information when she visited the Palatka Daily News on Wednesday morning for a previously scheduled interview.

She was asked how she obtained the documents.

“Isn’t that funny how that happened?” Dougher said. “Someone dropped it off for me. Actually, I requested it, to be honest with you. Honest, integrity and truthfulness are something we should require form a state representative.”

Later, Dougher said she heard about the files from a Clay County commissioner. Dougher said her campaign did not file the anonymous complaint with the Bradford County Property Appraiser’s Office.

Dougher said she will request a forensic audit from the Clay, Bradford, Putnam and Alachua property appraisers of all property owned by the Van Zant family.

“Elected officials are not above the law, and for eight years, Bradford County citizens have been defrauded,” Dougher read from a prepared statement.

Dougher said Charles Van Zant has also diverted campaign funds to personal charities after elections, including a church for which he is a pastor. Dougher compared Charles Van Zant’s donations to donations made by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonsville-based veteran politico who was indicted last month on federal fraud charges.

Payne, a longtime Seminole Electric employee running for office for the first time, said his strategy group picked up copies of the documents Tuesday.

“It’s disturbing,” Payne said. “We all want lower taxes, but we’ve got to pay our taxes. And when we don’t, we hurt those that count on those taxes, like firefighters, law enforcement, EMS and our schools. It hurts our kids.

“Whether it was intentional or not, or an oversight, it’s still a factual statement. They’re culpable of homestead fraud.”

A message left for Charles Van Zant at his Palatka district office was not returned.