A three-year-old ethics case against former county commission and senate candidate Dennis McDonald could have ended last June with a $500 fine to which he had agreed. Instead, and for lack of answering a few questions and correcting the record, McDonald now faces a $10,000 fine and a public censure and reprimand by the governor.
The Florida Ethics Commission meets on Oct. 25 in Tallahassee to vote on the case. The commission voted unanimously at its June meeting to reject a settlement with McDonald because he had not corrected the mistakes on his financial disclosure forms, however minor, that had led to the case against him.
When the ethics commission met in June, it was to decide on cases regarding both Dennis McDonald and his wife, Janet MvcDonald, who currently chairs the school board. The late County Commissioner Frank Meeker had filed both ethics complaints before he died in 2016, in retaliation for the various legal actions Dennis McDonald and his allies had taken against county commissioners until then. Janet McDonald was not involved in any of those actions. Most of the actions were found to be frivolous and thrown out of court, the ethics commission, the elections commission or the Florida Bar, and in some cases McDonald and his allies were compelled to pay back considerable legal fees they’d cost county government.
Meeker in his complaint charged that both Janet and Dennis McDonald had filed two sets of financial disclosure forms when they were candidates for office that contained errors of omission or incompleteness. An ethics commission investigation validated the complaint: both McDonalds had either understated or overstated some assets related to property ownership. But none of the errors appeared intentional or malicious. Rather, they were the kind of errors candidates for office, especially novice candidates, make because of the somewhat labyrinthine nature of disclosure forms.
Initially, Elizabeth Miller, the ethics commission’s advocate, was seeking to fine the McDonalds $2,000 each. The case went before an administrative law judge who, Miller told the ethics commission in June, “told the parties that he expected them to negotiate and come to an agreement and both sides would have to give some in the negotiations. Quite frankly I took that as maybe I should be more reasonable than what I had offered before, although I thought that was reasonable. But we did negotiate it.”
That led to the agreement between both sides–$500 in fines for each McDonald. “Mrs. McDonald was cooperative, she worked with me, she worked with the staff of the commission to get the inaccuracies corrected,” Miller said, “and I felt as though she learned, she admitted her mistakes and thought that $250 was appropriate.”
Two ethics commissioners opposed the settlement, finding the fine to be too low. But the vote carried otherwise, and Janet McDonald’s case came to an end.
When Miller presented the Dennis McDonald case, it was a different story. He had not been cooperative, she told the commission. Moments earlier, Daniel Brady, who with Kimberly Rezanka had opposed the settlement with Janet McDonald, had referred to the difficulties the commission had had with the McDonalds, lumping them both together: “As I recall, the McDonalds were not the most cooperative individuals in terms of the investigation,” Brady said, though that was the case more with Dennis than Janet. “As I recall they were tremendously difficult for you and the staff to work with.”
When a commissioner asked if Dennis McDonald had corrected his errors, Miller said he had not. “I thought he would do it, just checked on it, he had not done it,” Miller said. Without no further discussion, the commission voted unanimously to reject the $500 settlement.
Still, Miller did not take a punishing approach as she restarted the process of attempting to get McDonald to comply with the commission’s direction. McDonald did not cooperate. (McDonald had not responded to a phone message Thursday by the time this article initially published.)
Miller sent McDonald a series of 27 basic questions seeking clarity about his previous candidacies and the forms he filed. He just had to admit or deny statements. His deadline was July 17. Miller extended the deadline to July 23. On July 1, Miller wrote McDonald: “These questions are worded differently because you previously answered that you did not have enough information…. It is critical to your case that you respond fully to these requests. Failure to respond could mean that your case is closed at DOAH with a finding against you.” Miller sent him a “friendly reminder” on July 11, and yet other such reminders on July 15 and July 22.
He did not respond to the questions, but he wrote back on July 23, the day the answers were due: “I have participated in this case. You have my response from April 2019 on this matter.” He went on to say that he would be maintaining his position in the previous agreement with the advocate–the one the commission rejected. “It is very unfortunate that your hard work failed to gain respect of a body that is long overdue for a ‘total renovation,’” he wrote Miller, calling her “a credit” to Florida. He then goes on to write that his aim had been to bring attention to the county’s mishandling of the now-abandoned Sheriff’s Operations Center in Bunnell (“Remember that you knew the guy who tried to STOP it ALL before it happened and received this as payment,” he writes), though the issue that brought him before the ethics commission–incomplete financial disclosure forms–had nothing to do with the sheriff’s operations center.
Miller requested an administrative law judge’s order to compel McDonald to answer the questions. Judge Lawrence Stevenson issued the order. McDonald was to respond by Aug. 12. McDonald “never complied with the Court’s Aug. 7 order,” documents show. A week later, the court directed the commission’s advocate to file an affidavit for fees and costs incurred ($234). McDonald “has never provided a reason–justifiable or not–as to why he did not respond to [Miller’s] discovery requests or the Court’s Order,” a motion states.
Since McDonald never answered Miller’s questions, his silence was “deemed to have admitted all matters” in question. The Division of Administrative Hearings closed the case and turned it back over to the ethics commission.
And Miller drafted a final order that now goes before the commissioners at their October 25 meeting. The order finds–again–that McDonald violated the law by not filing accurate financial disclosure forms in 2011 and 2013, “and recommends that the Governor publicly censure and reprimand [McDonald] and impose a civil penalty upon him in the total of $10,000.”