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More answers to question: How did Keeling do it

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of July 26, 2012)
Photo: Past club President Irene Bush.

Repeatedly, the question comes up: How did Dustinn Keeling, recently charged with stealing thousands of dollars from the North County Republican Club, become the Sebastian club’s president at the age of 20?

What prompted dozens of intelligent, well-respected adults – most at least three times his age – to put him in power and give him carte blanche with club funds?

The answers, club members say, range from heartfelt feelings about wanting new, energetic blood at the helm to very specific details about how they say Keeling duped them.

“He found our weak points and used them to suck us into supporting him. He demonized his opponents, making them into scapegoats to cover up his own wrong-doing. They’re old tactics, but sad to say, they worked,” said Irene Bush, a past club president and arguably the most revered of all of the North County club members.

Bush's experience with Keeling is typical of what convinced others to trust and support him. 

In April 2011, Keeling visited Bush at her home to ask her to second his nomination for club president at the upcoming meeting when they would vote. 

Bush, a supporter of Steve Lulich, who was running for a second term, was hesitant at first. But by the end of the visit, she switched sides.

Before Keeling visited her, Bush received a call from Republican state committee woman Elly Manov –well-known for her dedication and influence in Republican circles – asking her to back Keeling.

To understand her ardent support of Keeling, said Manov, requires going back to 2008, when Keeling was “a chubby, pimple-faced high-school kid with a big smile.“ He came into Republican headquarters in Vero Beach and told her, “I’m too young to vote, but I can still help get John McCain elected.”

Whatever needed to be done, he did, recalled Manov, and he did it cheerfully. He took out the trash, watered plants, sealed envelopes and waved signs.

“He became a favorite,” said Manov.

Keeling started a Republican club for teens in Vero Beach. He started one when he went to college in Lakeland. He became president of three teenage Republican clubs.

“He was the perfect portrait of a young leader,” said Manov.  “I made it my mission to  help him and others like him.”

At Bush’s home before the 2011 election, Keeling, then 20, began his visit by studying the plaques and awards she had received over the years and commenting on what each one said about her as a pillar of the community and a caring person.

While not one to toot her own horn, Bush conceded she liked being recognized by Keeling – an energetic young person. It made her feel appreciated in her 80s.  It made her warm to him.

“He played into my weakness, which is so embarrassing to admit,” said Bush.

As the night went on, Keeling told her he owned an ice cream shop and was going to medical school soon.

Feeling protective of him by this time, Bush advised, “Be careful not to spread yourself too thin.” But Keeling insisted he could multi-task and invigorate the North County Republican Club.   

Next, Keeling went for the hard sell and pulled out paperwork: A list of 15 to 20 club members, whom he said supported him. (He had been quietly campaigning.) And, he pulled out debit card records from TARS, the local club of Teenage Republicans that showed something Bush found very disturbing.

It appeared that the teenage son of North County club president Steve Lulich, a Sebastian attorney, had been spending TARS money wrongly: A tank of gas for over $50. A woman’s necklace for about $100. Pizza here, sandwiches there. And, as TARS advisor, the teenager’s father, Steve Lulich who was running for North County president again, had apparently known about it and condoned it.

What Bush and most North County club members did not know was that an accountant had already audited the teenager’s spending and found that it was all for Republican causes. The gas was to take kids on door-to-door canvasses. The necklace was a customary gift for a young woman who organized a young Republican’s national conference. The food was for meetings and work sessions for teenage volunteers.

But the way Keeling presented it, it appeared the son had misspent and the father had covered for him.

“It’s so very sad,” said Lulich, “that this young man had to resort to such extreme lies and deception for his own purposes.”

By the time Keeling left Bush’s house on that April night, she told him she would second his nomination  at the election.

To get votes, Keeling relied on the fine print in the North County club’s bylaws, which he turned to his advantage. 

Unbeknownst to most of the members, the bylaws said that only those members who had paid their dues by Jan. 31, 2011 could vote. 

That meant that only a third of about 100 members would elect the next president.

Of those, most supported Lulich, who expected to be unopposed.

But Keeling quietly campaigned among the dues payers, showing them the growing list of his supporters and the misleading information on Lulich’s son, which he claimed Lulich condoned. By election night, a majority had switched sides. 

At the election, the member who was to nominate Keeling, had an emergency and didn’t show. So, it fell upon Irene Bush to nominate Keeling, which came as a total surprise to Steve Lulich, who thought Bush supported him and his re-election was a slam dunk.

“Steve was shocked,” recalled Bush. “It was an awful moment – all the more awful when I think about what it eventually meant.”

As Lulich watched in stunned silence, Bush nominated Keeling and returned to her chair next to retired cop Ted Pankiewicz, a North County board member on the county Republican Executive Committee.

“I don’t feel good about this,” Bush whispered to Pankiewicz.

Still, they both voted for Keeling.

As the new president, Keeling immediately made things lively.

The North County group had always been known as “the fun club”  among local Republicans because its meetings at Capt. Hiram’s restaurant consisted of cocktails, dinner and great camaraderie.

Keeling ramped up the fun with a nuber of special events.

For starters in June 2011, he announced the founding of the Irene Bush Award and gave a beautiful plaque to Bush for her “unwavering devotion” to Republican causes.  She got a standing ovation from the club membership and thanked Keeling profusely.

“I get queasy when I think about it now,” said Bush. 

In July 2011, Keeling and his family made a huge papier-mâché elephant for the Republican float in the Sebastian parade. Everyone "oohed" and "ahhed." He arranged for the golf tournament in September to have top-notch prizes. He planned a Halloween party with costumes and made a grand entrance as Buzz Lightyear from "Toy Story."

In December, U.S. Rep. Allan West, a favorite among some of the club members, spoke at a dinner Keeling arranged.

At the Christmas party, Keeling auctioned himself off for $500 for a date with two of the members. (The date never happened.)

Under Keeling's leadership, more and more people joined the club and participated.

“We were on the move, just as we had hoped,” said North County board member Leah Facto. “Dustinn was delivering.”

Meanwhile, something secret and insidious happened to the bylaws, which put Keeling in the position to steal from the club. To this day, no one in the club or in local Republican leadership seems to be clear on exactly how it happened. But this much is known:

The North County club bylaws filed with the Republican party of Florida in 2011 said that all board members could see the club’s financial activity as a checks-and-balances system to make sure there was no wrong-doing.

But, when Keeling was questioned by Facto and others about why dues and dinner payments were going to a private post office box he set up in Vero Beach, he produced a second set of bylaws that said only he, as club president, and the treasurer could monitor the club’s financial transactions. He also launched a rumor campaign to disgrace Facto, Pankiewicz and others who questioned him.

During months of back-and-forth over which bylaws were official and who had a right to follow the club’s financial transactions, Keeling stalled oversight and helped himself to thousands of dollars.

“Either he changed the bylaws on his own or the board didn’t catch the change and accidentally approved it,” said Manov. “To this day, I have no clue how it happened.”

“No one is clear on why there were two different sets of bylaws,” said Facto. “But we do know the harm it caused.”

With Keeling in jail for grand theft and forgery, Bush, now interim president of the North County Republican Club, is working on the bylaws with other board members “to strengthen them so what Dustinn did can’t happen again.”

The club is recovering, she said, although she is still haunted over how a kid was allowed to do so much damage. "I think about it and my stomach churns," she said.

 “We made mistakes,” said Manov. “But we’ve learned from them and the club is going to be stronger for it.”