On Aug. 12, Flagler County Administrator Jerry Cameron sold a parcel of land on U.S. 1 in St. Augustine to the Mullins Companies for $405,000. Cameron described it as an “arms-length transaction” with Joe Mullins, the Flagler County county commissioner.
Cameron had bought the 0.57-acre vacant parcel of commercial land at 2405 U.S. 1 South, just south of a Walmart, for “$400,000 and change” in 2003, he said, and had the land listed on the market for one to two years before Mullins bought it through his company. Property appraiser records show Cameron acquiring the property in 2003 for $500,000. Cameron said that included other costs. The 2019 just market value for the parcel, according to the property appraiser, was $281,250.
After acquiring the property from Cameron, the land was immediately listed with Century 21 St Augustine for $595,000.
A month after the transaction, Cameron paid off the mortgage on his home on Segovia Road in St. Augustine, a house he bought with his wife in 2008. It was last refinanced in April for $294,500.
Cameron made clear that the transaction was with Mullins, who approached him. Mullins declined to answer questions about the transaction, saying in a text: “You will have to go thru the company for that due to other owners. I am not sure they will reply but you will need to provide adequate media credentials or they will not reply.” (Mullins is listed as the sole owner of the Mullins Companies, according to a document he filed with the Florida Division of Corporations in October.) Mullins then cancelled his advertising contract with FlaglerLive. He had been advertising the weekly radio advertorial he pays for on WNZF.
Cameron spoke at length about the land deal after an interview request.
“Joe sold a piece of property in Augusta and he wanted to do a federal transfer, in-kind tax deferment, and he was looking for property,” Cameron said, describing the sort of transaction that allows the deferment of capital gains taxes. “He talked to me about investing in Flagler County. I told him he had to be careful with that because of appearances, and I connected him with a Realtor that I had worked with to possibly do some stuff in St. Johns. I had a piece of property that I had currently listed. And he looked at it, made an offer on it. I think I had it listed for $500,000. He offered $400,000 and a quick close because of his situation, and I accepted the offer and property closed.” Cameron said it had been listed “for some time” with Century 21, initially for $600,000, reduced to $500,000 “probably 90 days before it sold,” he said. He initially said the land had been listed for “probably a year,” and later said it was listed between a year and two years.
“He approached me about property, not the idea on this property,” Cameron said. “He approached me saying that he had sold this and he was looking for exchange property. We discussed the problem with investing in the county that he was elected in.”
The issue was different in St. Johns “because he has no inside information in St. Johns, he has no authority over zoning or anything else, there’s just no potential for conflict,” Cameron said. Asked if there was a potential for conflict with Cameron, the administrator replied: “That’s a conflict? If I owned a hamburger stand he can’t buy a hamburger from me? If I own a car lot, he can’t buy a car from me?” (He then said the hamburger analogy was not a good one.) “I’m his employee. There’s no way to parlay a conflict in him doing a business transaction out of the county with me.” County commissioners as such hire only two employees, the county administrator and the county attorney. “I can’t imagine how that would appear to be a conflict. There’s no quid pro quo possibility. There’s nothing there that could be a conflict.”
Nevertheless, Cameron thought it necessary to speak with Al Hadeed, the county attorney, about the transaction. He said he could not remember if he spoke with him before or after the transaction. Hadeed said he thought it was before. Hadeed told him the transaction was legal as long as there was no undue difference between the parcel’s value and the selling price–either too high or too low.
Ben Wilcox, the research director at Integrity Florida, the Tallahassee-based good-government watchdog, said the transaction suggests the lines between private and public business “are getting blurred.”
“It’s probably legal,” Wilcox said, “You don’t want public officials to be hurt financially because they’re serving in public office, but at the same time this kind of a business relationship between what is essentially a staff person for this county commission is just, I think, going to raise questions in the eyes of the public. It’s just the kind of thing you hope public officials will try to avoid putting themselves in those types of positions. It just doesn’t look good to the public and causes the public to lose trust in their government.” (Questions of blurred lines between his business and public roles had followed Mullins during his campaign.)
Cameron himself stressed the importance of avoiding such appearances only weeks ago, again in a matter involving Mullins. Mullins had invited several county staffers, including Hadeed and County Commissioner Dave Sullivan, to host and participate in Mullins’s radio show during a week when he was away. They did so, though the show was paid for by Mullins. When Mullins suggested to commissioners that it could be made into a regular recurrence, commissioners raised questions of propriety, and after legal advice from Hadeed, who got legal advice from Mark Herron, the Tallahassee attorney, he and Sullivan decided to disclose on a required, periodic financial disclosure form the financial value of the half hour as a gift they received from Mullins.
“You not only have to avoid impropriety, you have to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” Cameron said at the time, when asked if there would be additional such radio shows. When reminded of that statement, Cameron said there was no appearance of impropriety in the land deal.
Florida law addresses conflicts of interest among public officials and public servants. It does not prohibit transactions between an elected official and his or her subordinate when the transaction does not intersect with government business. A state ethics commission spokesperson said there were no cases directly similar to the one between Mullins and Cameron. But she provided a 1994 ethics commission opinion that involved a school board member and school board employees. The school board member was a broker for an investment firm. The opinion found that because of his authority over employees, the school board member would be prohibited from soliciting accounts from employees. Such relationships would create a conflict of interest. But the opinion also determined that as long as the school board member himself was not soliciting accounts, and that the employees were coming to him to open accounts, no conflict of interest existed. The opinion cites several other opinions that mirror the reason: as long as the elected board member is not soliciting business from people under his authority, and the solicitation is the other way around, there is no conflict of interest.
Bob Cuff, the Palm Coast City Council member and a real estate attorney who was ITT’s in-house counsel for many years, spoke much as Hadeed did–if the transaction was arms-length and the price paid was within range of market value, “nothing occurs to me that would make that a problem, even if the buyer were an elected official.” He did consider the transaction “unusual,” to the extent that it would require advice of counsel.
“The transaction with Joe occurred. It was completely above board. There was no effort to hide it,” Cameron said. But there was no effort to disclose it publicly, either, even though at least two commissioners–Donald O’Brien and Sullivan–had become aware of it. Cameron said there was “absolutely not” any reason to raise any questions about the transaction, which he considers to be of no public concern. “Anybody that would do that is just looking for a reason to attack either me or Joe, and I know why I’m being attacked,” Cameron said. He would not say by whom. “You’ll put it in print and it will aggravate the situation more. I’m going to deal with it.”
“I don’t have any doubt about whether this is something that should be reported, I think it would have been better for them to just disclose this up front,” Wilcox said, stressing the public’s right to know about the transaction.
“I didn’t set up a shell company or do anything to hide it,” Cameron continued. “It was just a normal transaction. But what I did with proceeds of a sale, as long as I didn’t do something illegal, is of absolutely no interest to anybody else.” Cameron says he “lost $100,000 on the deal,” because according to his real estate broker, Mullins two weeks after buying the property from Cameron was approached by a potential buyer and offered $500,000, which Mullins–according to Cameron–turned down. Moments later in the interview Cameron said “we had people that were coming along all the time, making offers or having interest in it,” meaning the commercial parcel. “The bottom line on it is that when he came in and I said I don’t have time to deal with this anymore, I don;t want to pay taxes on it anymore, I’m done with it, he made the offer and he caught me at a time where I accepted. Did I benefit, did he benefit, I think that’s the way that commerce works, both people benefit from a transaction if it’s a legitimate transaction.”
He said he did not have the commercial property appraised, nor did Mullins, because Mullins was not financing the transaction. He said there was little negotiations. “He asked me what’s the very least that I would take, and I said if I got a quick closing, the least that I would take is $400,000, that’s what I sold it for.” Cameron said there is no further arrangement with Mullins regarding a future sale of the land. He was willing to provide the sales contract and the name of the Realtor he used, and said he provided both. As of the time when this story initially published, FlaglerLive had received neither.
Sullivan said he became aware of the transaction last month when Mullins told him of it. (Mullins and Sullivan are friends, and Mullins was the first contributor, with $1,000, to Sullivan’s reelection campaign, still the largest contribution he’s received from an individual.) “I think there’s a Popeye’s going in on 100 near the new RaceTrac station,” Sullivan said. Mullins told him “‘I’m trying to put a Popeye in St. Augustine,’ and I said what, and that’s when he told me. But it wasn’t a lengthy conversation or anything like that.”
Sullivan, whom Mullins nominated to chair the county commission last Monday (Sullivan is the new chairman), would not comment on the transaction itself. “I guess I’m not going to make any comment on that without knowing details and things like that. I understand the question, don’t get me wrong, but I’m just not going to comment on that. No matter what I say there’ll be something wrong with it and I have no idea about the propriety of having a business relationship among a couple of people I know, and it’s not in our county. I’ll leave it at that.” Of his friendship with Mullins, he said: “He’s a fellow commissioner, he does need someone to coach him at times and try to keep him from doing the wrong thing, and I try to do that.” While he was being interviewed, Sullivan got a call from either Linda or Greg Hansen, the county commissioner, then a call from Mullins, word of this article being in preparation having spread by then (Linda Hansen said she was calling but not about this issue. Greg Hansen Friday evening said he had not been aware of it.)
O’Brien said he heard of the transaction “tangentially,” and didn’t recall who had told him of it. “On the surface it’s a private transaction between two parties. The fact that they have a relationship–I really don’t know, I really don’t know how to respond to that. I’m sure it’s not against the law or neither one of them would do it,” O’Brien said. “Either Jerry got a bad deal or Joe is dumb for buying the property,” he added, weighing the numbers.
“It sounds like somebody got a good deal or somebody got a bad deal.”