School Board member Janet McDonald and her husband Dennis McDonald, the former candidate for various offices, have agreed to settle a three-year-old case with the Florida Commission on Ethics, conceding that they had made minor and unintended violations on their financial disclosure forms and agreeing to pay $500 each.
The two separate agreements (see Janet’s here and Dennis’s here) have them each fined twice for the lowest amount possible–$250–for failing to disclose certain assets on their financial disclosure forms. The separate fines reflect the fact that similar violations were found on disclosure forms for separate years. The forms are required to be filed by all candidates for office and subsequently by all holders of public office. The investigation also tossed several additional claims against the McDonalds that were found to be invalid.
“It just goes to show you what goes on,” Dennis McDonald said this afternoon. “The lady from the ethics commission was very nice about it. It was essentially much ado about nothing, and I don’t even know why they even addressed it.” Janet McDonald couldn’t be reached.
The stipulated agreements were recommended by the Florida Ethics Commission advocate in April. But the agreement must be ratified by the ethics commission itself when it meets in Tallahassee on June 7. The commission only rarely counters its advocate’s recommendations.
The late Frank Meeker, a former county commissioner, filed the allegations against the McDonalds shortly before he died. The complaints were pursued by Meeker’s wife, Debbie.
The focus was on Janet’s 2013 and 2014 disclosures, when she first ran for school board (she won re-election in 2018), and on Dennis’s 2011 and 2013 forms, when he twice ran for county commission against Meeker. Meeker claimed they had mis-reported or under-reported assets such as property in Connecticut and Flagler and, in Dennis’s case, a collection of vehicles. The McDonalds had been represented by former Flagler Sheriff Jim Manfre–himself no stranger to ethics complaints and fines–who had called the allegations “false.” (Manfre also represented former County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin in an ethics case similar to that of the McDonalds’s in 2011, when McLaughlin was fined $600.)
The ethics commission’s investigation found probable cause that there’d been violations, but not to the gravity that Meeker had claimed. For example, Janet and Dennis own, or had owned, several properties, some jointly, some singly, some in Connecticut, some in Flagler. The properties were conveyed to a joint trust in 2014, then back to Janet and Dennis jointly in 2015. Different properties had different values. What ended up being reported on disclosure forms in some cases confused timelines of ownership, overstated the value of some property or understated the value of other properties, among other issues.
In 2013, the advocate found, Janet McDonald “was inaccurate as she failed to sufficiently and/or individually identify the locations and value of her real estate holdings in Flagler County, Florida, and Roxbury, Connecticut.” McDonald overstated the value of her holdings (though she had nothing to gain by doing so), and misstated the values of bank accounts. “These failures are not insignificant, inconsequential or diminimus (sic.),” the advocate concluded. (The word diminimus does not exist. “De minimis” is Latin for insignificant.) But the recommended fine is $250. The second count that warranted a recommended fine of the same amount mirrors the first, with the date of the disclosure form being different.
The findings against Dennis McDonald hewed closely to those against Janet.
“As you can see, we didn’t put the street names of the vacant lands that we owned, or Jan didn’t, and there was a piece of property that I thought I owned and it turned out Jan owned it, we’d even forgotten about it, and it was a scrivener’s error,” McDonald said. He sought to downplay what “everybody thought was a rivalry” between himself and Meeker, at one point crediting a Meeker OpEd in 2013 for laying out what became serious issues with the Sheriff’s Operations Center in Bunnell, even though Meeker ended up voting for the purchase of that building.
In fact, at least from Meeker’s side, there was intense frustration and at times anger over McDonald’s and his allies’ onslaught of complaints, through the ethics commission or other venues, against county commissioners, the county attorney and the county administrator. The complaints totaled more than two dozen, and were almost all tossed out, with notable exceptions. Meeker struck back through his own ethics complaints, as did the county, which sought to be paid back legal fees for various actions Dennis McDonald, among others, had taken. McDonald appealed but lost, and still owes $59,000.