Taking Harder Line Against Sheriff Manfre, Florida Ethics Commission Finds Probable Violations on 3 Counts
FlaglerLive | July 8, 2015
Last Updated: 7:20 p.m., with Sheriff’s and former Undersheriff Rick Staly’s responses.
The Florida Ethics Commission’s advocate is recommending that Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre be found guilty of three out of four ethics-violation charges filed against him by his former finance director, which could expose Manfre to fines of several thousand dollars and contrast sharply with his election promise to raise the ethical bar at the agency.
The three charges are the same that the ethics commission investigated last year. They center on Manfre’s alleged use of an agency credit card for personal purchases, his use of an agency vehicle for personal trips, his acceptance of a time-share gift without reporting it, and his receiving his first paycheck one week before its normal issuance date. Last year, the advocate found probable cause of violations in all but the last charge.
But in a deal, the commission advocate and Manfre agreed that he would admit to only one violation—his misuse of a department vehicle for personal trips. The other two charges would be dismissed as part of the deal.
In a startling and rare development, the ethics commission itself rejected its own advocate’s recommendation, finding the investigation incomplete and raising numerous additional questions that openly cast doubt on the sheriff’s veracity.
The second investigation was conducted and on June 1, a different commission advocate concluded, just as her predecessor had, that Manfre had violated the state’s ethics laws again on three counts—the same three counts he’d been found to have violated last year.
The difference this time is that there is no deal.
The recommendations go before the ethics commission’s July 24 meeting, at which time the commission will decide whether to accept or reject the recommendations. If Manfre is found in violation of the law, he would be fined. But there are no criminal penalties, as the proceedings are purely civil.
The conclusions of Commission Advocate Elizabeth Miller were as harsh as those of her predecessor last year, but more detailed, and underscored by Miller’s attempt to show a gulf between Manfre’s stated aim as sheriff and his actual conduct. Miller began the report of her recommendation by citing Manfre’s words during his last election campaign, when he made much of the importance of ethical conduct. “The public should vote for me rather than my opponent,” he’d said in a statement printed by the Observer during the election campaign, and in reference to former Sheriff Don Fleming, “due to his pattern of unethical behavior over the past nine months that has affected his credibility and that of the department.” He’d also said that “you’re not supposed to use your position to get things other people cannot get,” a reference to Fleming having been found guilty by the ethics commission of using his position for special access at the Hammock Beach Club.
Three violations that, if sustained, would undermine Manfre’s core promise to stand on ethics.
“Ignorance of the law is no defense,” Manfre had said in comments reproduced by the advocate—a comment she would then use as a dagger against Manfre, who has claimed, in response to the charges, that he had been unaware of violations because his finance director had not alerted him to them. Bolante, the finance director, filed the ethics charges against Manfre shortly after she says—in a lawsuit that’s still pending against Manfre—that she was forced to retire.
While Manfre “takes responsibility for his actions,” his response, filed Monday (July 6), states, “the Commission should not lose sight of the fact that [Bolante] in this matter was the Director of Business Services for the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office during the entire period when the alleged violations occurred.” As such, she supervised all financial matters including purchasing, accounts payable and records requests, “had knowledge of nearly every action she included in the complaint yet she failed to give any notice whatsoever to [Manfre] that there was any problem with his conduct. Not until October 2013, when she learned that her department had not been monitoring travel expense accounts, did she begin this defensive posture of accusing [Manfre] of unethical conduct.”
Manfre, in his response, disputes the advocate’s questioning his use of one vehicle or another to deduce that Manfre’s inability to recall what vehicle he used somehow implied wrongful intent. “The inability to remember an incident that has no particular significance is not indicative of anything other than a memory lapse,” the response states. The response also details the extent to which the sheriff went to reimburse the agency when certain bills were brought to his attention, and to be sensitive to public perceptions of improprieties, even in the absence of wrongdoing. Regarding the receiving of a gift an d not reporting it, Manfre’s response reiterates what it had concluded last year—that initially Manfre had not thought the gift in question had cost more than $100, the threshold for required reporting.
Manfre was contacted by phone and contacted at his office through email, by way of the public information office, requesting comment. Shortly after 5 p.m., the office, through its public information chief–Jim Troiano–issued a news release that began by referring to the allegations as two years old, dating back to a time when the practices and policies of the previous administration were still in place.
“The sheriff takes full responsibility for his actions and does acknowledge that he could have made better decisions,” the release states. “However, none of his actions constituted an ethical violation. In fact, the report does not cite any policies, procedures, practices or laws that were in place at that time that were not properly followed. A 1974 Florida Attorney General’s Office opinion supports the sheriff and his position. The ethics report is a rehash of the same report issued several months ago with little additional information.”
The sheriff is not quoted directly. The release recalls the previous negotiated agreement and states that if all the charges are not dismissed, the sheriff will go to arbitration.
The statement then turns the tables, suggesting that his former undersheriff may have been at fault: “It is curious that the advocate relies on the testimony of Linda Bolante and Rick Staly, the same two close advisors that the sheriff was relying on for advice on these issues. Bolante was the chief financial officer, one who had the responsibility to manage and supervise the internal expenditures and internal control procedures, as well as conducting internal and independent audits and other fiscal matters. Staly, as the Undersheriff at the time, was Bolante’s supervisor and also shared the same responsibility to keep the Sheriff informed and provide guidance to him on issues like this, just like they both did on every other matter regarding official agency actions.”
Staly, reached by phone late this afternoon, was startled by the sheriff’s news release.
“His statement that he takes responsibility and then turns around and blames others pretty much speaks for itself,” Staly said of Manfre. “I was never allowed to see his credit card statements and the advice I gave him, he did not follow, and I believe that my statements to the investigators stand for themselves. It clearly shows I’ve never had an ethical problem. I’m disappointed he would take this avenue, but it doesn’t surprise me, because I’m retired, and its’ easy for him to say anything he wants. I think the complaint stands on its own, my statements, along with Linda Bolante’s statements stand on their own, and I will not lie or cover up for anyone. It’s one of the reasons why I retired. I would encourage your readers to review and read my statement to the investigators. If he would listen to advice maybe he would not be in the problems that he’s in, but he doesn’t listen to anyone.”
The second round of investigations did not add to the charges, but they amplify the case against Manfre—and they do so through the testimonies of several individuals, all of whom have worked with Manfre (some of them as far back as his first tenure as sheriff, from 2001 to 2005), and all but one have either recently retired or were forced out: Bolante (forced out), ex-Undersheriff David O’Brien (fired), Undersheriff Rick Staly (retired), and public information chief Bob Weber (retired). In addition, former Sheriff Don Fleming and ex-undersheriff Mark Maronski were also interviewed by the investigator. (Maronski had been Manfre’s undersheriff in his first tenure.) Fleming is considering another run for the office. Staly may be considering a run for sheriff as well. Weber had grown dissatisfied with Manfre over time. So none of the names on that list can be considered too friendly or protective of Manfre, and most can more accurately be seen as personal or political opponents in one degree or another.
One current deputy interviewed by investigators—Sgt. Mike Van Buren—told investigators of two instances that further illustrate the same pattern that led to the charges against Manfre: his use of his sheriff’s office credit card for private matters. Van Buren, a deputy since 1987 and a sergeant for the last 10, was subpoenaed to give a statement to the investigator. He recalled a trip to Washington D.C., in 2004, near the end of Manfre’s first tenure as sheriff. Some 16 members of the agency had traveled to the capital for a memorial for fallen officers. They went to an ESPN Zone restaurant for dinner. Among them were about six people not affiliated with the sheriff’s office. They ate and drank, some of them drinking alcohol. The bill came to $600. Manfre, Van Buren said, attempted to pay it with his sheriff’s office credit card. Van Buren says he and Maronski intervened, offered to pay the bill instead, then took up a collection to make the payment. Maronski does not recall the payment matter, and Manfre, in an April affidavit, said he did not attempt to use the agency credit card.
Van Buren reported yet another similar instance: again in D.C., at the Madhatter Restaurant, in May 2013—where Van Buren says Manfre paid for everyone’s meal with a sheriff’s office credit card. Van Buren says he did not warn Manfre against it because he didn’t know at the time that Manfre was using the agency card.
Both investigations—in 2014 and this year—documented instances of Manfre using the agency credit card then subsequently, after questions were raised, reimbursing the agency.
“Although [Manfre] states that he ‘takes full responsibility for his actions…’,” Miller, the commission advocate, concludes in her recommendations, “he continues to blame others for his continued use of the FCSO credit card for personal, improper purchases, which siphons money from the county’s coffers.”
The investigation and the advocate’s conclusions also show a gulf between what ex-employees such as Weber, Bolante and Staly said was the prevalent understanding about using credit cards—not for personal use—and Manfre’s position, that no such policy actually existed, or that, as Manfre put it in his response—through his attorney, Linda Edwards—“FCSO Internal Policies had a different application to [Manfre] than to road deputies.”
“Even if an expressed policy were absent,” the advocate found, Manfre’s “contention that an agency paid credit card could ethically be used for non-agency related purchases, such as meals for non-employees and alcohol, is not based in any public service protocol. Common sense dictates that items charged to FCSO and paid by FCSO should be related to FCSO operations.”