A brief Flagler County Sheriff’s report released today states that an internal county investigation found “clear enough evidence” to suspend county Tourism Director Matt Dunn and to further investigate his conduct as a county employee.
After a meeting this morning between the Sheriff’s Office, the State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the sheriff’s office announced early this afternoon that it was asking FDLE to take over the investigation because of the “potential for public corruption.”
Jarrod Shupe, The county technology director and the point man in the internal aspect of the investigation, went to Dunn’s office Thursday morning to inform him that he was being suspended and required to be off the property, to seize all his electronic devices, and to lock him out of all electronic access to county business. His office and devices have been secured for law enforcement’s investigation. The county will not be conducting its own investigation until the criminal part is completed.
But the sheriff’s report leaves little doubt that the matter, after being vetted by Interim Administrator Jerry Cameron, who has extensive law enforcement experience as a police chief and an academic, by Sheriff Rick Staly, Chief Mark Strobridge, and others, warranted a criminal investigation. That investigation will continue even if Dunn were to resign.
Cameron said he was “absolutely” comfortable with FDLE taking over. “All I want is someone authority and competent jurisdiction to tell me whether there is criminal activity or not,” he said. “That’s where I want to be. I also want to make sure we don’t run the risk of painting Matt Dunn as already deemed guilty of this stuff. These are accusations and those accusations need to be disposed of because this is an issue of public trust and we can’t treat it lightly.”
The accusations, or allegations, were brought forth reportedly by a fellow-employee who had documented Matt Dunn’s alleged irregularities. Dunn, 44, has been the county’s tourism director for five years. Cameron did not confirm that it was a fellow employee, saying only that the suspension and subsequent moves were based on “an accusation from an individual or individuals that are stating that this condition exists.”
Meanwhile, Cameron met with the tourism office’s four remaining staffers, who came to the Government Services Building for the meeting, which lasted more than an hour. (After the county acquired the tourism office from the Chamber of Commerce, the office moved to larger accommodations in a building at the county airport.) Cameron appointed Amy Lukasik, the division’s director of tourism and marketing, to lead the office for now.
“We talked about who was the best person to take this forward while this investigation was going on and it was unanimous that they thought Amy ought to do it,” Cameron said, referring to Lukasik’s colleagues. “I deferred to their judgment willingly because I thought she was capable too. I’m really impressed with the passion that this group has with the work that they do, and I think it’s a sad situation that they’ve got to sail through this choppy water, but I think they’re up to it and we’re going to try to reset our course over there.”
Lukasik’s task will not be mere caretaking: she will be in charge of developing the division’s budget, as budget season has begun, and presenting it to the County Commission this summer, as it is very unlikely that Dunn would be back by then–if at all. Cameron is also looking for more results beyond budgeting. “I told them that based on what I have sen so far maybe we need to get a clearer picture of where we are and where we are going,” he said.
The tourism division is a county department, but it also answers to the oversight of the appointed Tourist Development Council, a collection of government and hospitality industry representatives chaired by County Commissioner Greg Hansen, who himself looked into a Dunn-related complaint previously and cleared him.
Commissioner Joe Mullins in early February started questioning Dunn about his business practices. Mullins says Hansen approached him to tell him there was nothing there, regarding Mullins’s concerns about Dunn. Mullins says he walked away from Hansen, fearing a sunshine violation. “It’s not what he said, but I don’t want to go into that,” Hansen said.
Hansen explained why he’d looked into Dunn’s paperwork at the time, after he was approached by Kim Carney, the Flagler Beach city commissioner, who herself had concerns about Dunn’s practices. Carney had approached Hansen not in her role as a commissioner, but as a Rotarian who’s organized an annual cycling event, and applied for modest grants from the TDC over the years. She was once turned down, so she raised issues with the way Dunn accounted for so-called room-nights–the number of people who stay in local hotels because of a particular event. That number supposedly dictates whether an event gets one type of TDC funding or not. But the accounting is hazy and, as Hansen found out when he looked into it, dependent on visitors volunteering information and telling the hotel they’re there because of a specific event.
“There has been questions raised of Matt by one individual overs several years and investigated by the clerk of court, it all involved paperwork,” Hansen said, referring to Carney. “I looked at the paperwork, I couldn’t find anything wrong, but it didn’t have anything to do with money.” The way nights were accounted for is “not particularly good, but I didn’t see any particular way to improve it,” Hansen said.
For all that, it appears the Carney issue has nothing to do with the more recent, more serious accusations about Dunn. “I know for a fact that Kim Carney is not involved in this investigation,” Hansen said. As for the current investigation, he said,”it’s the United States of America, he’s innocent until proven guilty, and that’s all I know. I hope he’s innocent, but there’s going to be an investigation.”
Asked whether he expects Dunn to return to duty in the future, Cameron said: “I have no confidence at all in either direction on this, I just want to make sure he’s treated fairly, and if he has committed serious breaches and a number of defenses he may raise. We certainly will take appropriate action administratively if that turns out to be the case.” He added: “I don’t think anything lights up the radar screen more than when one of these issues comes to bear on us.”