The more Dennis McDonald appeals, the more he loses: the bill he now owes a former county commissioner and the county, in attorneys’ costs and fees, is $70,000, up from $59,000 before he decided to appeal the ruling that led to the earlier judgment.
The Florida Commission on Ethics at its July 26 meeting in Tallahassee will be presented with a recommended order that McDonald pay former County Commissioner George Hanns $11,149. That’s the cost of Hanns and the county defending against an appeal by McDonald of a former order that McDonald should pay Hanns $59,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.
The order names Hanns, but since Hanns was represented by Flagler County’s insurer, the money actually goes to the county. Hanns said he does not expect to see a cent.
“It’s long overdue, it’s about time,” Hanns said today. “It’s amazing how slow the legal process works, and how many options people have to appeal and try to get out of it and whatnot, but other than that, it’s all good–enjoying retirement.” Hanns left the commission at the end of 2016.
Remarkably, McDonald said today he never filed an appeal, was not aware of the judgment, and was not about to pay any sum. “I never appealed anything. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Way back, many, many years ago I answered the judge, I sent a written reply, and that’s all I ever did,” McDonald said. “This ethics commission is absolutely out of control. It really is.”
The issue dates back to a 2015 ethics complaint McDonald filed against Hanns, who was then on the commission–one of around two dozen complaints filed by McDonald and others against commissioners, the county administrator and the county attorney over a span of several years and through various venues (including the state elections commission and circuit court), with numerous allegations of misconduct. McDonald’s complaint against Hanns focused on Hanns’s service on the county canvassing board.
Almost every complaint was tossed out. In some cases, including the complaint against Hanns, the ethics commission found that McDonald’s claims were not only frivolous, but maliciously false. Flagler County government, which had been defending against the complaints, opted to sue to recoup fees.
The county won an initial judgment against McDonald, Kimberle Weeks (the former supervisor of elections who’s now appealing a felony conviction in an unrelated case), and Mark Richter Jr., all of whom had filed complaints against local officials. That initial judgment amounted to a combined $312,000, some of it owed the attorneys who defended officials, some of it owed the county, whose legal office also took part in the defenses.
McDonald appealed the judgment ordering him to pay $59,000, ($48,500 of it to Hanns, $10,541 for costs incurred by the county attorney’s office.) The 1st District Court of Appeal dismissed McDonald’s appeal last September. The court granted the county’s motion for costs and fees, remanding the case to the ethics commission to determine what those costs and fees should be. The commission referred the case to an administrative law judge, who set the amount at a little over $11,000.
The amount is based on a $350-an-hour fee charged by the firm the county used in the appeal–Messer Caparello P.A., and lawyer Mark Herron. The county’s insurance carrier covered only $180 an hour. The county made up the difference from its own budget, according to the recommended order.
At the time the court dismissed his appeal, McDonald blamed the county for pursuing a case against him–to recoup fees–because McDonald was “one of the guys that dug in on the hospital,” in his words–a reference to his criticism of the county deal that resulted in the purchase of the old Memorial hospital in Bunnell. That building became the sheriff’s Operations Center, the now abandoned and all-but-condemned structure. More than two dozen sheriff’s employees complained of illnesses while working in the building, where mold and water intrusion was documented through tests last year and this year. McDonald’s ethics complaint against Hanns, however, had nothing to do with the hospital purchase.
McDonald said he has not paid any of the original $59,000 judgment, and doesn’t intend to, nor does he intend to pay the additional $11,000. “There’s no basis for it in Florida law,” he said. “I’m a private citizen. They have no authority over me.”
He said the most he did in the case was send his attorney to the Attorney General’s office over a year ago to ask for a “basis in law” for the action against him. “Never heard anything,” McDonald said.
Another McDonald case was before the June ethics commission board–a $500 fine he agreed to pay over a minor financial disclosure issue dating back several years, when he was running for the county commission.