A Florida Ethics Commission investigation found probable cause that both School Board member Janet McDonald and her husband Dennis McDonald, a former candidate for office, violated the law by providing “inaccurate” financial disclosure forms.
The investigations focused on Janet’s 2013 and 2014 disclosures, ahead of her run for school board, and on Dennis’s 2011 and 2013 disclosures, ahead of his run for the county commission, then in a special election for a state senate seat. Both are alleged to have failed to properly list real estate holdings in Flagler and specific identifying information related to holdings in Sherman and Danbury, Conn. Both are alleged to have “grossly overstated” real estate holdings, and both are alleged to have reported aggregate values of various bank accounts rather than specific values deposited at each bank. Janet was also alleged to have misreported a retirement account, and Dennis to have not “adequately” described his primary source of income.
The late Frank Meeker, a county commissioner until his death in July 2016–and Dennis McDonald’s opponent in 2012 and 2014, winning by a few hundred votes each time–filed both ethics complaint on April 5 that year. Meeker had himself been the target of similar complaints by allies of Dennis McDonald’s, as had other county commissioners and county officials, and spoke before his death of filing the complaints against Dennis McDonald as a means of showing up his alleged hypocrisy. (See Meeker’s 77-page complaint against Dennis here, and his 84-page complaint against Janet here.) Meeker called the McDonalds’ disclosures “false, incorrect or incomplete.”
Ethics complaints are usually kept confidential until they ethics commission announces such steps as recommendations for probable cause. But Meeker, two weeks before his death, had distributed his complaints to local media with a statement explaining his decision.
Ethics complaints sustained by the full ethics commission are civil, but not minor, matters, as they can seriously tarnish a politician’s fortunes, cost a lot of money, either in legal defense costs or in fines, and often cost elections: former sheriffs Jim Manfre and Don Fleming and former County Commissioner Barbara Revels all lost ethics cases at the commission, and each subsequently lost a re-election bid. The fines Manfre and Revels had to pay were in the thousands. Fleming’s was $500.
Ironically, Manfre is representing the McDonalds in their cases with the ethics commission. Neither Manfre nor the McDonalds returned calls before this story was published. But both McDonalds had provided written responses to the allegations to the ethics investigator, with Dennis declaring accusations “all false.”
“I do not take these accusations lightly, as they are mean spirited,” he’d written in June 2016. “Involving my wife has taken this to a new level of low.” But McDonald’s refutation of Meeker’s claim proved unsatisfactory to the investigator.
For example, Dennis did not disclose his ownership interest in 12 real estate parcels, eight of them in Flagler, the rest in Connecticut, including his interest in two Palm Coast properties owned jointly with Janet. The ethics commission’s investigator tried to ascertain the location of properties in Connecticut, but was unsuccessful. Dennis in his response to the investigator said the Connecticut properties are “open public records.” That did not satisfy the ethics commission’s advocate: Dennis’s “limited descriptions were not sufficient because a member of the public had to resort to other sources of information which ultimately provided no information.”
Dennis had listed rental property in Roxbury, Conn., as the source of $78,000 in income. The investigator researched properties there through the town’s assessor’s office and found no corresponding information, nor a more thorough description of the “rental property” Dennis had listed on his disclosure form.
“Public disclosure of personal financial interests assures the public that government officials do not have personal financial interests that conflict with their official duties,” Elizabeth Miller, the ethics commission’s advocate, wrote in her recommended order. For that reason, [Dennis McDonald] had an obligation to the public to file accurate financial disclosure forms. [His] form was significantly deficient and [his] reluctance to provide the necessary information does not give the public any confidence in government or [his] ability to serve the public without conflicts of interest.”
Dennis McDonald again ran for the county commission in 2014 and again this year and was defeated both times.
The advocate’s findings further went on to analyze the lacking disclosure surrounding Dennis’s “auto collection,” which he listed with an aggregate value of $135,000. He did not list individual values, and disputed, in writing, the state’s authority to make him do so. That did not satisfy the advocate. Unless he had 135 vehicles in his collection, she wrote, “at least some of them should have been listed separately.”
The advocate then went on to apply the same analysis to Dennis’s alleged obfuscations regarding his bank accounts and stressed the clarity of potential penalties, listed on the disclosure form, should a candidate fail to provide the information. “This range of penalties emphasizes the importance of reporting specific information,” the advocate concluded before recommending that the full commission find probable cause that Dennis McDonald committed two violations of law.
The complaint against Janet McDonald follows much of the same outlines as the investigator analyzed real estate holdings, their stated or “overstated” values (it’s not clear why a candidate would overstate an asset), all the while revealing the intricacies of property valuations. On the 2013 disclosure form, the ethics advocate found, Janet “was inaccurate as she failed to sufficiently and/or individually identify the locations and values of her real estate holdings in Florida and Connecticut. She failed to identify the specific values of accounts held at each financial institution. Lastly, she failed to list the individual assets within the IRA with values greater than $1,000. These failures are not insignificant, inconsequential, or diminimus (sic.).”
As with Dennis, the advocate recommends probable cause of ethics violations by Janet McDonald on two counts.
The full ethics commission will decide the cases at a subsequent meeting, affording both McDonalds and their attorney room to argue before the full board.
Dennis McDonald is battling another ethics matter–an order by the commission to pay back $59,000 in legal fees incurred by a now former county commissioner and the Flagler County Commission’s lawyers. McDonald had filed an ethics complaint against George Hanns when Hanns was a commissioner. The ethics commission ruled the complaint to be frivolous, then sided with the county’s argument that because it was also maliciously false, McDonald would be responsible for paying legal fees. The commission’s decision applied to other related cases as well. The 1st District Court of Appeal upheld the decision in September.