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State Ethics Commission Finds Sheriff Fleming in Violation Over Hammock Gift Membership

| October 19, 2012

Sheriff Don Fleming. (© FlaglerLive)

Last Updated: 5:02 p.m.

In a decision that may seriously damage his re-election chances in less than three weeks, the Florida Commission on Ethics today found probable cause that Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming violated the state code of ethics when he accepted a free, gift membership to the Hammock Beach Resort, and subsequently, for years, accepted meals at discount there–gifts not offered to the general public.

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The 7-3 decision by the 10-member ethics panel–made up of five Republicans and five Democrats–is the result of an ethics complaint filed against Fleming in April by James Williams, a former Hammock Beach Resort employee, who said in his complaint that Fleming approached him in 2005 and asked if he could obtain a gift membership to the club. Williams had also worked at the sheriff’s office on Fleming’s watch, for just six months between 2007 and 2008, when he was fired without cause.

Soon after the complaint was filed, Fleming said he’d done nothing wrong, describing the membership as having “no dollar value.” That was not accurate. A one-time initiation fee levied at property owners in the development costs $20,000, with annual dues approaching $5,000 for member access to the resort’s many amenities.

In a news release issued by the sheriff’s office this afternoon, Fleming maintained a level of innocence: “Although the Ethics Commission concluded that the honorary membership should be been reported, until their investigation was completed, I did not know the honorary membership was valued at more than $100,” he said.

But the ethics commission does not accept ignorance of the law as a defense, nor is the gift membership considered “honorary,” since it had monetary value and was, in fact, a gift.

The release goes on to state that “the Sheriff said when he accepted the membership, it was his understanding that he would pay for meals. He said he did not use any other facilities at the resort, other than the dining room.” And it quotes Fleming again: “Once I learned that the meals had been discounted and that the membership could be considered a gift under the ethics laws, I reimbursed the resort for the full amount of the discounts and resigned my membership.”

Fleming reportedly paid some $4,000 back to the resort.

Fleming is in a tight re-election race against Jim Manfre, the former sheriff and Fleming’s challenger four years ago, when Manfre lost by less than 1,000 votes. Manfre wasted no time seizing on the commission’s findings.

“It shows that the sheriff has embarrassed this community, those he has pledged to protect and serve, and he’s embarrassed the sheriff’s office by the finding that he in fact has violated the code of ethics. It’s been recently reported that Florida has one of the highest rates of corruption of any state, and it’s been reported that the ethics code needs to be tightened in order to prevent corruption, and one of the basic ways that public officials are corrupted is by accepting gifts from organizations for no other reason than the fact that they are public officials. So he’s violated a basic public trust by accepting this gift, then he violated the law by not reporting it. The ethics code is a law and he’s violated the law. It’s that simple. He’s the top law enforcement official in our community, and he’s now been charged with violating the law, so his credibility as a top law enforcement officer has now been injured. It’s now broken.”

Williams, who filed the ethics charge, is a supporter of Manfre’s candidacy.

Florida law doesn’t bar public officials from receiving gifts. But if the gifts exceed $100, they must be disclosed on the official’s quarterly gift disclosure form (Form 9). In September 2009, for example, Fleming reported receiving a replica firearm from Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, a gift valued at $189.50. In 2007, he reported getting a $150 gift certificate to the Marriott Sawgrass Hotel and Spa, from St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar. In July 2006, he reported receiving a $1,000 diamond pendant, won in a drawing, and gifted from Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson.

The ethics commission’s official order regarding the Fleming case won’t be published until Wednesday, when it will shed more details on the commission’s reasoning and findings of probable cause. The commission’s spokeswoman neither confirmed nor denied so much as the existence of a case pending against Fleming, as is the commission’s right under the law, until the order is officially made public. It was somewhat surprising that the sheriff’s office disclosed the matter before Wednesday, though in several internal regards, the sheriff’s office has been at times quite forthcoming with information.

The next step for the commission is to levy a fine against Fleming, which could be in the hundreds of dollars or in the thousands of dollars.

Fleming is still entitled to a hearing before the full commission, should he decide to dispute the charges. From today’s statements, it appears that Fleming will not do so. Disputing the commission’s findings entails what amounts to something very similar to a trial, where the defendant may bring witnesses and have his or her case argued before the commission, which sits in judgment. That level of litigation can be time-consuming and expensive.

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50 Responses for “State Ethics Commission Finds Sheriff Fleming in Violation Over Hammock Gift Membership”

  1. emile says:

    Don Fleming still has my vote. This is a small town and we appreciate our LEOs. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t understand that just because he didn’t use the golf club, it didn’t mean that he wasn’t given a free membership. In his own way, he tried to use this membership ethically, only using it for meals, and paying his tab promptly. And when called out on the matter, he immediately reimbursed the club for the discounts. I see the fine hand of the Ronald Regan Assembly here, and their support of Stevens for sheriff.


  2. Reality Check says:

    I will bet that the person who filed the claim (a terminated Deputy) will get a position if Manfre wins, talk about embarrassing the community. Mr. Manfre not only embarrassed himself and the department on many occasions, but he clearly showed he is an ego maniac; why vote for a proven loser. Fleming may have a battle scar but I would never consider putting Manfre back into an office he is not qualified to run in the first place.


  3. Dudley DorightFor those of you that says:

    the one thing that really scares the hell out of me is that if Manfre wins, Ray Stevens will get a high position in the Manfre administration. So much for the farcial vetting of Republicans and the RRRA crap!


  4. confidential says:

    Wether elected or appointed some officials in Flagler county were and probably are still fraudulently manipulating their positions for profit…next trial involves a past FC charity “elite VP” and family, that duped us all for years in spite the red flags, ignored because (like now) staunch local buddy elite support.:
    Trial begins for sister of ex-Family Life Center director in Flagler County….search the NJ link.

    I can’t believe that a member of the State Ethical Violations Commission in Tallahassee has the nerve to say “My feeling is that he (Fleming) paid back the money, that’s good thing and I admire that”.
    To which we should all reply he paid some money back, because he was caught red handed!!
    I wonder what would have been the outcome if instead of Fleming, would have been a Democrat sheriff.


    • Ray Thorne says:

      Are you really comparing the two? Fleming did not steal from anyone. It was a membership. He ate food. It is not a crime.


      • deana carmen says:

        Ray, it was a FREE membership. The words FREE and ELECTED OFFICIAL should never be used in the same sentence. #1 This was a membership available only to those who resided within that Community. #2 Fleming received a 20% discount on each of his meals. #3 Receiving a gift is not the problem. This issue is his failure to report the gift. Failure to report leaves him open to accusations of improprieties. He knew he needed to report this gift, it was no different than the other gifts he has received and reported.

        And to those that think everything should go away because #1 Fleming suddenly realized he was getting a discount – he knew he was getting a discount each month when he opened his statement from the Resort. #2 Fleming paid back the thousands of dollars in discounts he received – if that were the case then every thief who robbed a bank or stole a car or picked someone’s pocket would be let go if they would pay back the amount they illegally obtained.

        But most importantly, FREE is not something any public official should be accepting. Maybe in Jersey that is how things are done, but in the State of Forida one of the first classes in the police academy is ethics and taking FREE stuff is the number one topic. Just think how many FREE meals your beloved sheriff has gotten in his 28 years in law enforcement.

        I am one resident that has enough of him, his bawdy goon friends, his immoral behavior and the embarrassment he is to law enforcement.


  5. Jim Neuenfeldt says:

    While Deana Carmen may be right in her opinion, she is also only looking at one side of the story.
    It takes 2 to tango they say, so where is the outrage toward the club that made available the memberships to begin with and where are their records regarding what other elected officials if any also was given “free gratis’.

    I’m asking because logic tells me that the Sheriff wasn’t the only one, and in looking at the other reports of elected officials…. I don’t see where they reported it either! Although I have seen them at functions on the property and in conversations seem to be very familiar with the property, staff, and functions happening there.

    Bottom line… I smell a rat. A disgruntled person who wants to create havoc for 1 person, not the gifts, the process or the gift giver, and that folks is just dirty politics not justice for anybody!

    Don is a good guy in my opinion, and I think he and the Officers as FCSO deserve another 4 years! They do a great job, have come a very very long way, and are an asset to Flagler County. What they don’t need is a politician with revenge on his brain for being outed 8 years ago. Here’s a unique question? If you were let go from a job, and wanted it back, how much schooling would you have undertaken to make yourself better at the job you lost? Now how much school do you think Mr. Manfre has completed in his last 8 years?


  6. fed up says:

    I konw this may upset the applecart but this question needs to be addressed… attended the N.A.A.C.P. forum today and listened to Janet McDonald mention Sheriff Fleming’s health and physical condition. The question is …. should a person running for politcal office, especially that of Sheriff, should their health and physical condition be considered when voting??? Let’s face it the Sheriff is a heavy drinker, smoker and MORBIDLY obese. He probably has high blood pressure, high colesterol, gout, possibly diabetes? hip problems? amongst other possible ailments. He is 68 yrs old and has been short of breath when speaking at the forums. doubt very much he could pass a stress test. Should all of these factors be considered when placing your vote? yes or no???


  7. NotSurprised says:

    Deana, I agree with you to a certain extent. However, I believe accepting this gift WAS a problem, hence it went unreported. Haven’t we all heard the phrase “spirit of the law” as opposed to “letter of the law”? Don knew this very well, and he was aware he was violating the “spirit” of the law, therefore he conveniently failed to report this gift. I’ve read in this column that it is okay for Florida politicians and elected officials to receive gifts as long as such gifts are reported. The fact notwithstanding that Florida is one of the most corrupt states in the Union, there has to be either an explicit or implicit limit to the value of the gift. I’ve read some public and private organizations put a $10 limit on gifts. Anything above that has to either be returned or reported, then distributed amongst the members of the organization, depending on the nature of the gift. “Gifts” to public/elected officials can easily be viewed as “attempted bribes” without a stretch of the imagination. Favors of omission or commission being the value expected or rendered in return. If the Hammock Beach Resort gave Don a plaque for his office, or a gift certificate for a dinner for two, or even a weekend getaway package valued at at least $1,000, he would have probably reported it. Even in that case, with the possible exception of the plaque, one could question the motivation behind the gift and the official’s acceptance. But this is something totally different. This “gift” was worth thousands of dollars, and it should have never been offered or accepted. Surely the officials and lawmakers who crafted the ethics rules requiring reporting of gifts would agree. Don knew that the acceptance of this type of gift would set tongues wagging and would be severely frowned upon by honest people, so paragon of virtue that he is (not!), what does he do? Instead of politely declining it, he accepts it but doesn’t report it. Even people who like Don personally can see that this is a form of bribery, can’t they? And, if, as some have reported it, Don solicited the resort for this gift, one can see that as a form of extortion. Regardless of the upcoming election and your party affiliation, please think about the whole issue: the solicitation of the gift, the resort’s acquiescence in offering the gift, both parties’ motivation, the dollar value of the gift, and finally the non-reporting of the gift. There’s something rotten in the state of Florida!


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