Ron DeSantis’s chief elections fraud official collapsed after abruptly leaving a “contentious” meeting in the Florida governor’s office, then lay dead or dying for almost half an hour in the hallway outside until he was found, an investigation published on Monday has revealed.
Previously unreported details of the September 2022 death of Peter Antonacci in the Tallahassee capitol building appeared on the website of the Florida Bulldog, an independent online watchdog of the state’s politics and government.
The outlet, acting on a tip-off that Antonacci, 74, died after an argument with DeSantis, submitted a public information records request to obtain redacted documents from the Florida department of law enforcement (FDLE).
None of the 17 pages, which the Bulldog released online, confirm that DeSantis was actually present at the meeting in a conference room at his own office, attended by, among others, Florida’s secretary of state, James Byrd, and Mark Glass, the FDLE commissioner.
But they did reveal other details that were until now not publicly disclosed, including that Antonacci died after a heated meeting in the governor’s office, rather than generically “at work in the Capitol building” as first stated; and that he lay undiscovered for 24 minutes after he collapsed in the hallway immediately outside.
During the meeting, the purpose of which was redacted from the papers, Antonacci became “agitated” and “frustrated” at various times, witnesses said.
The Bulldog does not allege criminal wrongdoing by any party and the documents paint a picture of frantic efforts to revive Antonacci, who had a history of cardiac problems, once he was finally found.
Its report, however, highlights the veil of secrecy that was thrown over the incident and its aftermath, including where it took place, who was present and why Antonacci might have become upset or angry during the meeting. The redactions on the paperwork hide the identities of all of the “10 to 15 people” reported to be present, while still images and video of the episode were withheld entirely.
The FDLE director, Scott McInerney, said Antonacci was “agitated” during the meeting and had “abruptly” risen from his seat and walked out, but had shown no sign of medical distress, the Bulldog reported.
Glass and the FDLE general counsel, Ryan Newman, attempted to revive Antonacci using CPR and an automated external defibrillator (AED) until paramedics arrived, the documents say, but the device “could not produce a shock”.
Antonacci, a former election supervisor in Florida’s Broward county, was DeSantis’s personal pick to lead a controversial new state office of election crimes and security, with unprecedented prosecutorial powers, in the wake of the 2020 general election.
On election night that year, the governor praised Florida’s safe and secure voting mechanism as an example for the nation, but quickly adopted the view that a crackdown was needed after Donald Trump falsely insisted his defeat to Joe Biden was the result of electoral fraud.
An obedient Republican supermajority in the Florida legislature rubber-stamped DeSantis’s multimillion-dollar request for a team of electoral fraud investigators, but judges have since been largely dismissive of the prosecutions of citizens who voted after the state indicated they were eligible to do so.
DeSantis had insisted the voters, mostly ex-felons who believed their voting rights had been restored by the approval of a state ballot initiative, and who received voter registration cards, were “gonna pay the price”.
A succession of Republican state officials, including Byrd and Ashley Moody, the Florida attorney general, lauded Antonacci on his taxpayer-funded appointment in July 2022 to clamp down on election fraud that did not, by any discernible measure, exist in the state.
Antonacci’s cause of death was recorded by an emergency room physician at Tallahassee Memorial hospital as cardiac failure from a heart attack. No autopsy took place.
He was praised at his funeral as a decades-long public servant to Florida, having served the state in numerous roles including deputy attorney general and general counsel to DeSantis’s predecessor, Rick Scott.
The Guardian has reached out to DeSantis’s office for comment.