The origins of a U.S. Navy investigation centered on the spouse of incumbent Island County Commissioner Angie Homola sparked a firestorm of debate at a political forum in Freeland Thursday.
During the last few minutes of the event, Homola charged her Republican challenger, Jill Johnson, with participating in accusations that her husband had abused his military position for the benefit of her campaign.
“Pictures were provided by my opponent to try and slander my husband,” Homola said. “I’m very discouraged about that.”
She also voiced dismay over Johnson’s closing statements. Johnson had expressed gratitude toward Homola and her family, saying that this has been a clean campaign and was an example of how people can disagree and still remain respectful during an election.
“I don’t know how to respond to being thanked for something when I’m being stabbed in the back,” Homola said.
Johnson quickly denied the charge, but the forum moderator did not allow her to elaborate and closed the forum.
The end of the event marked the beginning of the debate, however, as the exchange caused an uproar among Republicans and Democrats alike. Members of both parties collected in small groups to discuss the issue.
Johnson supporters were especially inflamed. A Whidbey News-Times reporter was quickly surrounded by those crying foul, claiming that Homola had broken forum rules with a personal attack.
Some were also adamant that the charges were false, saying Johnson was a victim of partisan politics at its worst.
The truth, however, is nuanced.
Photos prompted inquiry
In a later interview, Johnson admitted she sent photos of Homola’s husband, Cmdr. Jerry Homola, to the Navy, but she claims it was more than two years ago when the county was seeking a levy lid lift, commonly referred to as Proposition 1.
The photographs were of him in uniform at an Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce forum regarding the county’s tax proposal. Homola was not running for office at the time.
Johnson, the chamber director, said she sent the pictures to Navy officials because some attendees believed his attendance in uniform was a breach of military protocol regarding members of the Armed Forces engaging in politics.
The pictures, however, resurfaced several months ago, just before the primary election, and were posted on the website, Island Politics. Johnson adamantly denies sending the pictures to the group.
“They have popped up again but they didn’t come from me,” Johnson said.
Homola questioned the story in an interview Friday, saying she sincerely doubts Navy officials made copies of the pictures and forwarded them to the conservative online forum.
But she said she would accept Johnson’s claim.
“If my opponent believes the photos were submitted innocently, I will accept that position,” Homola said. “In any case, I am putting this behind me now and am moving on. I look forward to completing the 2012 campaign in a clean race.”
Bill Strowbridge, a co-founder of Island Politics, said the group has had the photos since the chamber forum two years ago. Though he doesn’t recall who provided them, he said they came from a Coupeville man, not Johnson.
“Maybe she sent them to the guy in Coupeville but I don’t know,” Strowbridge said.
However the photos got there, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station spokeswoman Kimberly Martin confirmed this past August that a formal investigation had been launched.
Martin confirmed that Lt. Michael Mora, collateral duty legal officer for Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10, was working with an assigned investigating officer to look into the matter, but she declined to comment at the time as the review had not yet concluded.
On Friday, Martin released the following statement.
“The matter was thoroughly investigated and addressed administratively at the command,” Martin said. “Navy Regulations protecting the privacy interests of the service member prevent release of additional information.”
Homola said she also was limited by how much she could reveal publicly but claimed her husband had been absolved of any wrongdoing.
“The allegations were determined to be unfounded; his 23 years of service as a naval aviator are exemplary,” she said.
Homola said this has been a difficult issue and one that has affected her family. She said she has tried hard to wage a clean campaign and the attacks on her family are unfair and just plain ugly politics.
“There is a line you just don’t cross,” Homola said.
Likewise, Johnson said families and careers should be off limits. She sent the photos two years ago, at a time when she had no plans to run for office. It’s not something she would do during a campaign, she said.
“I didn’t sanction it, I don’t condone it and it’s not the kind of campaign I’m running,” she said. “I feel bad for Angie. This is why good people don’t run for office.”