A FlaglerLive Investigation
On April 23, a press release under the letterhead of “The Joe Mullins Companies” was issued to local media about a “town hall-style” meeting” Mullins was organizing with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The meeting was intended “to begin the process of attracting high-paying jobs to the county.” It was to be held on May 4 at the old Bunnell City Hall, featuring a USDA official and Mullins himself.
Mullins is running in the District 4 County Commission Republican primary against two-term incumbent Nate McLaughlin. The winner faces Jane Gentile-Youd, a first-time candidate running as an independent. Mullins declared in February. Aside from noting that Mullins is “a Flagler County businessman who is also running for Flagler County Commission,” the release—issued by the Jacksonville firm O2 Digital—nowhere notes that Mullins was organizing the event in connection with his campaign.
On April 30, Mullins emailed FlaglerLive: “Wanted to give you heads up about Friday’s meeting it’s very big for the growth and for quality-of-life improvements in our area,” he wrote, suggesting that in the next few months “two large industries [are] considering Flagler County and will most likely move to Florida to relocate in the United States.” The same day, he emailed Bunnell officials, asking if any commissioners were willing to speak at the meeting. None were.
FlaglerLive asked Mullins if he was renting the Bunnell facility and for how much. Mullins the next day replied: “We have rescheduled the meeting for June due to a conflict that day and everyone schedule” (sic.).
It was not that simple.
Politics As Business
The event was cancelled (or postponed, according to the Mullins campaign) because the USDA pulled out of the meeting, calling it a campaign event that Mullins had not characterized as such either to the USDA or to the city, because Bunnell’s city attorney intervened, because Mullins had not filled out a space-use agreement with the city and had not paid a deposit for the facility, and because the city, once it saw it as a campaign event, and fearing being implicated in ethical breaches, informed Mullins that he would have to comply with all rental regulations.
The way the meeting was put together and its eventual scrapping illustrates a common thread through the way Mullins is portraying himself in the community, repeatedly blurring the line between his ostensibly private business interests and his election campaign. In a paid radio show, through press releases, and through “meetings” he’s organized such as the one in Bunnell (with another scheduled in Palm Coast later this month, on opioids), he’s promoted himself as a mere businessman active in community-oriented issues, even though other officials clearly see his activities as campaigning.
Numerous officials, including Bunnell commissioners, Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly, and the USDA have opted not to be so associated with Mullins, not wanting to seem like they’re endorsing him. Others he’s asked to participate in his events say they’re still willing, but not to take side either for Mullins or against McLaughlin. At least one of them has seen his organization benefit from Mullins financially. .
Mullins had spoken with, texted and emailed FlaglerLive frequently since shortly before he announced his candidacy. He had sought a “break the ice” meeting with FlaglerLive last year through a third party, claiming FlaglerLive had written articles about him (it had not: this is the first). “I welcome any conversation you would like to have on these issues,” he wrote on March 13, referring to his troubling past history. But the moment he was questioned this week about further details on the Bunnell meeting, he first deflected questions to O2 Digital’s Andrew O’Brien, who had handled his business’ public relations since last year, then said in a text he was in a training meeting, then said he would not answer questions unless they were emailed to him ahead of time—a practice FlaglerLive does not engage in with candidates on daily articles except for the Live Interview (the detailed written interview with every candidate for local office). McLaughlin, for example, who has withstood a number of uncomfortable interviews over the years, especially during his first candidacy, has never requested—or been granted—written questions first. Mullins declined to be interviewed any other way. His exception was not granted.
Documents obtained by FlaglerLive and interviews with various officials, however, shed light on the way the Bunnell City Hall meeting was organized before it unraveled, and add to what so far has been a problematic campaign for Mullins.
Since his recent arrival in Flagler County and the beginning of his candidacy, Mullins has been bedeviled by various allegations of dishonesty and allegations of unethical or scabrous behavior spilling over from his previous attempt at political viability in Georgia. A series of articles by the Palm Coast Observer’s Brian McMillan and Jonathan Simmons in late March and early April documented the issues, including questions related to his residency, his ex-wife’s claim in court documents that he sent a nude photo of her to another man without her permission, and more recently—in a development specific to his current campaign in Flagler—donations to his campaign that may have skirted campaign finance laws. Mullins’s recurring blurring of lines or facts reported by the Observer mirrors the same blurriness that shades his more recent promotional efforts.
A Verbal Agreement
Mullins arranged to use the old Bunnell City Hall with then-City Manager Dan Davis, all in verbal communications, according to City Clerk Kristen Bates. City officials were directed to book the facility for four hours. That was done on April 24–the day after the city commission fired Davis.
“The deal was set up between Mr. Mullins and Mr. Davis,” Bunnell City Commissioner John Rogers said. “As far as I know the city commission did not know anything about it until after it was arranged.” Rogers added: “He should have rented the hall just like any other citizen.”
Mullins would have normally had to pay between $25 to $40 an hour and put down a deposit of between $150 and $200, not including a $10-an-hour electric charge or other incidental costs, according to the schedule. He’d have had to fill out a space-use agreement. He did not do so, but no one at the city asked him to.
On April 30, he asked the clerk if there was “anyone from the city that can speak during this meeting.” Bates wrote him that neither Tom Foster, the acting manager, nor the mayor, could attend.
On May 2, the USDA’s Andrew Hayes wrote him. Hayes is a field representative of the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service and was to discuss the grant and loan program the federal agency makes available to rural communities looking to add broadband service. “After getting your email that this meeting was going to be open to the public,” Hayes wrote, “which combined with the fact that you are currently running for the office of county commissioner, brought up the possible concern that this event could be considered a campaign event.”
The USDA office in Washington, Hayes continued, “officially notified me yesterday that they do consider this proposed town hall meeting the be a campaign event and because of that, USDA employees are not allowed to attend. They also instructed me to ask you to remove my name from the agenda and not publish my name on any website used to promote this event.” Hayes said he’d gladly meet in the future “as long as the meeting can’t be considered anything possibly connected to a political campaign.”
Foster then had a discussion about the Hayes email with Bates and the city attorney that morning.
“When city staff was informed by the USDA that the USDA had determined that this event was a political event and that they would no longer be participating,” Wade Vose, the city attorney, told FlaglerLive, “city staff, including myself, conferred and determined that per the USDA’s withdrawal and determination, Mr. Mullins would be informed that he would have to go through the City’s process for facility rental, including payment of relevant fees.”
An hour after Hayes’s email, Bates was writing Mullins that he had to follow the space-use rules as if it were a campaign event. “Because it could be construed as a campaign event, we are consulting the City Attorney to see of the Commissioners should participate in an official capacity as we do not want any ethics violation concerns brought up in regards to the City,” Bates concluded.
Spinning a “Conflict”
At 11:36 a.m., Mullins wrote FlaglerLive that the event had been “rescheduled” for June “due to a conflict that day,” which of course was not the case, as the records make clear. Two minutes later, O’Brien issued a brief release stating that the meeting had been moved “to a later,” but unspecified, date in June, repeating the spin: “due to a last minute conflict.”
Other officials had no illusions about the purpose of the Bunnell meeting. Commissioner John Sowell in an interview said that the city charges other entities for space uses even for “well-intentioned” initiatives such as summer programs for children. “Obviously, when it’s a political event, we can’t allow it to be free,” he said. “Mullins is a political candidate running for Flagler County Commission District 4. While he is a candidate, the city cannot provide free use of its facilities to host any event he is promoting. On its face there is a conflict of interest. I’m sure everyone, including Mr. Mullins, would agree this would be an inappropriate action.” He added: “We can’t be giving him something for free and promoting his candidacy.”
When Tom Foster, the acting city manager, explained the situation to commissioners in an email, he said “the former city manager made the decision not to charge for the use of City Hall,” but that the decision was reversed.
The Bunnell “town hall” is no longer an issue, at least for now. Mullins’s “opioid task force” is still ahead.
“No One Manipulates Me”
On April 13 and 16 Mullins issued the same press release about another public meeting he was organizing: an “opioid task force,” on May 22 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Palm Coast. The April 13 email was from himself, under his own political candidacy’s logo, immediately–and correctly–denoting the meeting as a campaign event.
But on April 16, the release was re-issued under the “Joe Mullins Company” logo, and by O’Brien’s O2 Digital.
Either way, Mullins was announcing “a call to action against the opioid crisis” and was “teaming up with community leaders to create the Flagler County Opioid Task Force.”
The second paragraph read: “The task force includes Mullins; Pastor Charles Silano, of Grace Tabernacle Ministries International; Michael Feldbauer, president of the Flagler County Drug Court Foundation; Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly; and other county business leaders and officials.” Additional “business leaders and officials” have yet to be named, and Mullins may have too zealously included Staly.
When FlaglerLive verified whether the sheriff was involved in the task force, a spokesperson replied: “While Sheriff Staly supports any community efforts to reduce opioid addiction and the opioid epidemic affecting Flagler County, he will not be participating in anything that would imply endorsement of any local, state or federal candidates.” Due to the seriousness of the opioid crisis, the spokesperson said the sheriff’s office would send a representative, “but it will not be the Sheriff personally.” (The spokesperson issued the statement on April 13, well before the USDA’s decision regarding the Bunnell meeting.)
Silano said he will attend and does not consider the task force meeting campaign related. “Holland introduced me to Joe Mullins and Mullins mentioned it and got back to me about it,” Silano said, referring to Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland and the task force idea. Silano said Mullins hasn’t contributed to his food pantry the neediest locally, nor to his Open Door Ministries, the addiction recovery house in Bunnell, nor to his church, though he said the donations are welcome.
Feldbauer, the only other person named as being part of the “task force,” said he personally supports Mullins politically, but that it has “nothing to do with the task force and what I’m doing there.” Feldbauer said his “passion for those who are suffering” and working against the opioid crisis was the reason.
Mullins, however, “was a major contributor,” financially, to the drug court foundation’s recent Spring Ride For Recovery fund-raiser, an amount Feldbauer would not disclose. (Mullins posted on his candidate Facebook page that it was $2,000.) Becoming irate in a brief interview, he said he did not consider the task force meeting a political event. “If I considered it a political event, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “No one manipulates me.”
The Radio Show
A similar blurring of lines is taking place with the weekly half-hour radio show Mullins has been buying since Jan. 13 on WNZF, just days before he announced his run for office. Flagler Broadcasting General Manager David Ayres won’t disclose the fee Mullins pays, but said it’s similar to the fee Palm Coast paid for Mayor Milissa Holland’s briefly-lived weekly radio show (which the city booked for 40 weeks for $10,000). None of those fees have appeared on Mullins’s financial disclosure forms as campaign expenses.
“He started doing it before he declared, he’s just doing it as a business guy wanting to promote economic development and a better life in Flagler County. After he started the show he declared,” Ayres said. “Sure, he pays for it, he can do what he wants as a candidate or not, but as far as the FCC and us and the broadcast business goes, whatever rules there are with elections would be up to him to follow those guidelines.”
In mid-April Mullins asked Ayers to “interview” him on Mullins’s own show. Ayres did. “It’s kind of strange, here I am interviewing a talk show host,” Ayers said. But he did it to ask the questions he thought were on a lot of Flagler County residents’ minds about Mullins. “I wanted to know about the whole past thing.” Ayres has also had Mullins on Ayers’s Free For All Fridays show. “To me anybody who thinks they can do better for our community and they want to run for office,” Ayres said, “regardless of what I think, I feel the radio stations have an obligation to give them a voice in the community and let the community decide if it’s the right candidate.”
He also noted that Flagler Broadcasting is “in the entertainment business,” which he described as different from news outlets. “It’s a little bit of news and a lot of entertainment is what the radio is, so we’re a different bird than other news media,” Ayers said. ““If he’s entertaining, that’s our format.”
The contract between Flagler Broadcasting and Mullins is with the Joe Mullins Companies–the same letterhead that’s appeared atop the releases O’Brien’s O2 Digital has been sending.
The Politics of PR
Finally, there’s Mullins’s relationship with O2 Digital.
The press releases from O2 Digital began last December. They were not the first glimmers of Mullins’s local activities. He’d had three staffers at his company disseminate releases at different times about his monetary contributions in the wake of Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, and in one case, about a $5,000 donation to a Christian organization–in Augusta, Ga., where he was based. It’s not clear why that release was circulated to Flagler media, though its December date suggests a reason: it preceded by a few weeks his announcement for the Flagler County Commission race.
At the time, O’Brien’s fledgling company had been contracted by Mullins for PR only, not for campaign matters, O’Brien said. (O’Brien had been a reporter at the Palm Coast Observer then a social media producer for an Orlando television station before launching O2 Digital.) That arrangement continued–and doubled up with campaign duties, with releases not making the distinction between the two responsibilities until this month–at least not in O’Brien’s view: “I’ve only sent one campaign release,” O’Brien said. That was his campaign announcement. The rest “are works he’s doing through his business connection.”
Payments for O’Brien’s services have yet to appear on Mullins’s campaign finance disclosures. O’Brien, in an interview Wednesday, said those payments should be listed soon, when the next reports are due, and that from this point forward, any Mullins-related communications from O2 Digital will be strictly campaign related. If the Bunnell event is to be rescheduled–O’Brien says it will be–releases about it will not come from him, because Mullins doesn’t consider it a campaign event.
Muddying the water somewhat in O2 Digital’s relationship with Mullins is O’Brien’s relationship with County Commissioner Don O’Brien: Don is Andrew’s father, and not quite an ally of McLaughlin on the commission. Asked if he was supporting Mullins, Don O’Brien gave an emphatic “no.”
Meanwhile, as recently as May 2, Mullins was still signing his emails with his 220 Boy Scout Road address in Augusta, Ga.