Ethics Commission Rejects Flagler’s Pitch to Recover Fees from Frivolous Complaints
FlaglerLive | January 22, 2016
Jan. 22 Update: The Florida Ethics Commission, meeting in Tallahassee today, unanimously rejected Flagler County’s attempt to recoup attorneys’ fees in case involving complaints against County Attorney Al Hadeed and County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin. The ethics commission adopted its counsel’s recommendations in each case, which found no grounds to award fees even though the complaints filed against Hadeed and McLaughlin were deemed to have been groundless. The county argued that fees were due because the complaints had been filed with knowing falsehoods, and were intended to harm the reputations of county officials.
The previous story with all relevant documents is below.
Jan. 7–Flagler County government will almost certainly not get reimbursed for the money it spent fighting frivolous ethics complaints filed against County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin and County Attorney Al Hadeed last year. The Florida Ethics Commission’s counsel is recommending against reimbursement in a Dec. 30 memo and a proposed order that the full ethics commission board will act upon at its January 22 meeting. The board rarely counters its counsel’s recommendations.
The county intends to dispute the recommendation on Jan. 22, Hadeed said, noting that the ethics commission staff routinely recommends against fee recovery.
The commission’s decision, should it follow its staff’s recommendations, would be a setback for the county, but on more symbolic than substantial grounds. The county had not even filed actual dollar amounts to be reimbursed. Its intention was more pre-emptive than financial: because it was facing a slew of such frivolous complaints, it was hoping to dissuade complainants from filing them in the future. The order might not embolden complainants to file more such complaints, but, as it doesn’t cost complainants a dime to file them, it may not discourage them to continue doing so, either.
The original ethics commission complaints were filed by Dennis McDonald against Nate McLaughlin, and by John Ruffalo against Hadeed. McDonald and Ruffalo are members of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies and last year were part of a small group of individuals who filed some 19 complaints against county officials with the ethics and elections commissions, through the court system and the state attorney’s office. About half of those have been dismissed so far. Attorney Mark Herron, representing the county—through documents bearing the imprint of Hadeed’s work and reasoning—argued to the ethics commission that the complaints filed against Hadeed and McLaughlin had been willfully intended to harm reputations, and that they were based on knowingly and recklessly false accusations.
State law allows those targeted by such complaints, when found frivolous, to recover attorneys’ fees. But the law “sets a very high bar for the recovery of fees,” the order states. Hadeed and McLaughlin did not sufficiently prove what they’d claimed against the complainants.
“We find that the petition is not sufficient as to allegations concerning the element that a complaint must be made with a malicious intent to injure one’s reputation,” the proposed order regarding the Hadeed matter states. “Rather than substantively alleging such an intent based on contents of the complaint material to a violation of the Code of Ethics, the petition chronicles several filings, in forums in addition to the Commission on Ethics, made by persons other than Ruffalo or made by Ruffalo in another ethics complaint, attempting thereby to characterize the ethics complaint as a malicious filing.”
Ironically, the ethics commission’s wording against the Hadeed petition echoes the wording it used to dismiss the Ruffalo and McDonald complaints. In those orders, the commission had found both complainants to have relied more on allegations and opinions that substantiated fact.
“As to required petition contents that the person filing the complaint knew that the allegations made about the official were false or made the allegations about the official with reckless disregard for the truth,” the proposed order regarding the Hadeed case goes on, “and that the false or reckless allegations were material, we also find the allegation to be lacking.”
Ruffalo, for his part, found the attempt to recover fees to be another reason to complain against the county attorney. “The allegation against me to forced me to pay attorney fees is, in fact, an attempt to intimidate me and others from filing complaints against persons who have done harm to our county,” Ruffalo said in a Dec. 15 letter to the ethics commission (slyly slipping, again, a false accusation of wrongdoing against county officials along the way). “Malicious intimidation should be yet another form of wrongdoing charged against Albert Hadeed.” He goes on to dispute any claim that malice played a role in his complaints, as opposed to his “civic duty” to “bring the substantiated facts previously provided into the sunlight in attempt (sic.) to make our county better.” (The ethics commission had, in fact, found Ruffalo’s facts to have been unsubstantiated.)
The proposed order regarding the McLaughlin matter hews closely to that of the Hadeed matter, citing the same laws and repeating the same reasoning to justify the dismissal of the petition for fees: “We find that the petition is not sufficient as to allegations concerning the element that a complaint must be made with a malicious intent to injure one’s reputation,” the proposed order states.
As in Ruffalo’s case, McDonald was afforded the chance to file a letter to the commission—just as all parties involved will be afforded the chance to appear before the commission in Tallahassee at the Jan. 22 meeting. Ruffalo’s letter was half a page long. McDonald’s was six pages long of single-spaced narratives. He rejects assertions that he is part of any “cohorts” of complainants, then reasserts previous claims of lack of professionalism on Hadeed’s part and goes on to a refutation of many of the points made in the petition to recover fees while restating many of his initial claims against McLaughlin.
McDonald concludes by claiming, in turn, that the county is at fault for smearing his reputation rather than the other way around. “If you were to review the list of the news releases from Flagler County’s information officer on this matter,” McDonald concludes near the end of his letter, referring to his claim that McLaughling “polled” other commissioners regarding a county issue, “it is extensive and abusive. I believe the malice in this process is being practiced by Flagler County at Mr. Hadeed’s direction.”
Hadeed called McDonald’s claim “absolutely ridiculous and unfounded” in a brief interview today. “We have been responding to his assertion. We haven’t filed anything against Mr. McDonald whatsoever—this being the only thing we filed only because the charges brought were knowingly false. He had a public record to show that the assertions he made were false.” The county merely availed itself of the statutory right to recover fees in such circumstances, Hadeed said. “We believe they were maliciously brought simply by reason the text of his allegations.”
Hadeed added: “I have not received any instructions from anyone that would even suggest that his proposition is true. Nobody has told me to go after him or anything of that sort. We just followed all the procedures. Everything we have done with respect to the multiple proceedings, almost two dozen of them, have been very professional, we have cooperated with all the agencies,” while McDonald and Ruffalo have “flooded us with public record requests which we have very thoroughly responded to. So we haven’t been lobbing anything. They have been lobbing at us.”
The county hasn’t been entirely unsuccessful in its attempts to recover money after the filing of frivolous suits: Last March a circuit judge ordered the Palm Coast “Watchdogs” and their attorney–who were also either cousins or closer relatives of the Ronald Reagan Assemblies–to reimburse the county $3,100 in fees after a frivolous suit was thrown out. Palm Coast government was able to recover a more substantial sum from McDonald after his frivolous suit against the city was tossed.