At 7:49 p.m. last Friday evening, Michael Schottey, a former Palm Coast government employee now challenging Milissa Holland for mayor, emailed to media a statement saying he was “releasing evidence of potential city corruption” at a press conference the next day in Town Center in “the general case against Milissa Holland” and her employment with Coastal Cloud, the Hammock-based tech company.
“The evidence will concern both potential felony and misdemeanor crimes,” his statement read, adding: “These crimes are currently being investigated by numerous agencies at the city, state and federal levels including: The U.S. Justice Department (FBI), the State Attorney General’s Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the Florida State Ethics Commission.”
Incendiary claims less than two months from the city elections, but also false in two instances, and impossible to verify in two others, because the agencies don’t reveal that such investigations are ongoing. Schottey was speculating, but making claims of criminal investigations as fact.
Schottey was on stronger ground when he pointed to two emails that show Holland using her government email account to discuss Coastal Cloud business. A third such email turns up in an examination of a longer thread Schottey obtained through a public record request to Orlando city government–a request that had been denied when placed through Palm Coast government, which ruled the emails, inaccurately, non-city-business related: two of the emails unquestionably mixed city and private business, and if the city denied releasing them, it violated public-record laws. The third email did not refer to any Palm Coast business but could not have been suppressed under any existing exemptions.
Schottey acknowledged in an interview today that the timing of his release was intentional. He candidly called it “the old shock and awe”–an admission of rank manipulation to limit reporters’ verification of the claims over the weekend, and to give his message time to propagate unchallenged until Monday. “I knew damn well they wouldn’t have their response before Monday,” he said. The city issued a 10-point refutation of Schottey’s claims this afternoon, charging Schottey with “seeking to abuse City Staff” for “political motivation,” citing no awareness of criminal investigations, and characterizing his claims as “destructive and fallacious.”
Schottey resigned in January just before his six-month probation was up, over dissatisfaction, he said, of the way he handled the Hackathon in his role as communications director. Though Morton was complimentary of him at the time, his response to Schottey’s allegations today told a different story: “Michael Schottey resigned in lieu of being terminated. Former H.R. Director, Debbie Streichsbier came to City Management of her own volition, after completing a probationary
review and demanded Mr. Schottey be terminated prior to the expiration of his probationary period. According to Ms. Streichsbier, this was a result after multiple female directors complained about his treatment of them.” Schottey said he expected that the city would “attack the messenger” to detract from his allegations.
FlaglerLive did not report on either the Friday or Saturday statements until now because its most alarming claims–that criminal investigations are ongoing at the highest levels in the state–could not be verified until today. Interviews with Holland and Matt Morton, the city manager, were conducted on Saturday, and with Schottey today.
“FDLE is not investigating,” FDLE spokesperson Gretl Plessinger said in an email Saturday. Schottey said that by “State Attorney General’s Office,” he meant the State Attorney’s Office in the region, which he said conveyed the matter to FDLE. A State Attorney’s official said there is no investigation. Typically, FDLE would investigate claims of public corruption.
Schottey did not mention the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, where such complaints may be initiated before being turned over to other agencies (as was the case recently, for example, with an ongoing FDLE investigation of ex-Belle Terre Principal Terrence Culver), but verifying with the sheriff’s office, a spokesperson said: “I’ve reviewed everything in the system and find nothing related to Mayor Holland over the past several years besides minor traffic violations.”
Kerrie Stillman, the chief spokesperson for the Florida Ethics Commission, said today, “We have no public record of a complaint filed against Ms. Holland, so I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a complaint filed against her.” That doesn’t mean an ethics complaint doesn’t exist: Holland herself was under the impression one had been filed. Schottey did not have a copy.
It was reportedly filed by a city employee who did not respond to an email request. It consists of three claims: that Holland wrote recommendation letters for the Coastal Cloud owners’ children, that the city colluded to prevent the release of public records, and that the city’s Hackathon earlier this year made money for Coastal Cloud. Holland doesn’t dispute the letters of recommendation. She says she writes dozens of them all the time, as had the previous mayor, as do other elected officials. She had no involvement in the email issue, she said, and she called the claim about Coastal Cloud a “complete lie.” (The city said Coastal Cloud was among the major donors who contributed $40,000 to the event.)
Such complaints can be filed by anyone at any point about anyone in public office: Flagler County Commissioners discovered that a few years ago when such complaints were used against them as political tools to discredit them. Almost the complaints were thrown out, and the county turned the table on the complainants, charging malice and reckless disregard for the truth–and winning back fees. The Ethics Commission cautions–as it did when it reviewed 35 such complaints ahead of its last meeting earlier this month, that even when it contacts individuals involved in the complaints initially, “These reviews are limited to questions of jurisdiction and determinations as to whether the contents of the complaint are adequate to allege a violation of the Code of Ethics or other laws within the Commission’s jurisdiction. As no factual investigation precedes the reviews, the Commission’s conclusions do not reflect on the accuracy of the allegations made in these complaints.”
The commission dismissed the 35 complaints (including one against Robert Bracewell, a member of Bunnell government’s Fire Pension Board, and one against Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood), even as it published the complaints in their entirety, despite their insufficiency or frivolity. (Former Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon was himself the target of one such complaint.) There’s also a matter of jurisdiction: the Florida Ethics Commission investigates matters where public officials abuse their position for private gain. While the cited claims against Holland may have validity as criminal matters, such as not releasing public records, none of the claims point to a private benefit to Holland at public expense.
Schottey said he made the claims of ongoing criminal investigations based on “the best of my knowledge,” and when told of the agencies’ replies, accused State Attorney R.J. Larizza of “playing games.” He said if a criminal complaint doesn’t exist, “it will be refiled,” but in the meantime he would rephrase his statements on the web to reflect the current status. “I don’t want to be making just allegations.”
In fact, the substance of Schottey’s claims are “just allegations” for now–with the exception of the reference to the emails.
Amanda Videll, a spokesperson for the FBI in Jacksonville, said “the FBI does not confirm nor deny the existence or status of any investigation,” the standard answer to any queries of ongoing cases at the agency, though there appears to be no doubt that FBI agents have interviewed some former employees, among them Schottey and, according to the Observer, ex-manager Landon, who the Observer reported was interviewed about a year ago. It’s not a first at the city: the FBI interviewed employees in 2015, too, when Landon himself ridiculed the notion that just because FBI interviews were taking place, an investigation was going on.
“You must be listening to the media because I don’t know that there is an investigation,” Landon told the council at the time, claiming he “actually got a kick out of that because the media showed up like we had a raid going on, and they were reporting, which wasn’t the case at all.” (In fact, even then, the News-Journal and FlaglerLive had never referred to the matter as an “investigation” or a “raid,” but merely as interviews or visits by agents, which may well be all that is taking place regarding the claims Schottey is raising.) Morton and Holland say they have never been interviewed, and they say they know of no city employees who have. They may be parsing, if ex-employees have been interviewed, as Schottey clearly has.
Holland was more blunt about Schottey’s claims of criminal investigations: “What the heck? Is this guy deranged?” she said. “Is this guy making this stuff up? You can’t make stuff up like this.”
Schottey said an FBI agent interviewed him at his home shortly after he left his city job in January. But even Schottey could not say beyond speculation whether he was being interviewed on a criminal matter–or if Holland was herself the target. He speculated based on the questions the agency asked him that because Coastal Cloud as a company had been the subject of a previous inquiry in Kentucky, possibly Coastal Cloud was being examined. But again, that was speculation.
Asked if he knew specifically whether the inquiry was just that–an inquiry, as opposed to a criminal investigation, Schottey said it was a “Distinction without difference.”
Though he did not dispute them in today’s interview, none of those nuances, caveats or disclaimers about the “investigations” were part of Schottey’s release or public announcement at Town Center’s Central Park. “Just a short time prior to my resignation, City Manager Matt Morton came into my office, slunk down into my chair and said the words, ‘It’s over, they got her,’” Schottey said in his most arresting statement Saturday. “When I asked what he was referring to, he said the FBI was on the mayor’s trail, and he worried that she was going to prison and that he was going to go with her.”
“It’s so cheesy, it’s so beyond the pale. I don’t have any recollection of a line like that,” Morton said. He said he’d heard “rumors” that the FBI was “sniffing around,” but that he himself had never been interviewed nor been asked to be interviewed by the agency. (“If it’s cheesy and beyond the pale he needs to check his own language because I don’t have a long history in matters like this,” Schottey said in response. “When someone tells me they’re being investigated by the FBI, I’d remember it.”)
“I know for a fact our attorney hasn’t been contacted,” Morton said of the FBI–a statement that of itself nevertheless suggests he was concerned enough to ask Bill Reischmann, the city attorney. He was also aware of the ethics complaint. “I don’t know where that is in the process.”
The emails are another story.
In a January 2018 email to a director in Orlando’s economic development department, discussing the relocation of a consulate to Orlando, Holland wrote of her “other hat” at Coastal Cloud, as “Director of a technology firm who consults with the public sector for their Salesforce platform that solves many of their needs.” She was asking the director to set her up over the phone with the department’s chief innovation officer.
The director links her to another official. Holland writes that official from her government email on Feb. 1, 2018: “Along with being Mayor, I am also the Director of Business Development for Coastal Cloud, a company that is Headquartered in my City. We do, however, have several of our employees that reside in Orlando as they enjoy your City and all it has to offer. We are a Platinum level Salesforce Consulting partner. It is my understanding that the City has an Innovation Director as well but wanted to reach out to you to set up a call to discuss what we do from a technology perspective and our services that offer the goals and objectives set forth to create efficiencies and a more robust citizen engagement platform.”
No matter how those lines are read, they’re a sales pitch mixed in with Holland’s role as mayor, written above her signature as mayor, sent from her email address as mayor.
Months later, she contacted the director again from her city email account about Coastal Cloud’s interest in holding its annual retreat in Orlando–a more innocuous email that she could have written about any Palm Coast company seeking retreat space, and with no potential benefit except to Orlando. “They have a sizeable budget,” Holland wrote. “They would need to find lodging, dinners, fun things to organize as a group. Who in our organization should I point them to?” The Orlando director pointed her to Visit Florida.
Other emails to Dyer about Coastal Cloud came from her Coastal Cloud account, but one of them, clearly automated and written in October 2017, opens with this line: “Allow me to introduce myself as Mayor Milissa Holland of Palm Coast, Florida.” Holland’s long email then narrates how different divisions of Palm Coast government came through Hurricane Irma, and how “Every single one of our departments was involved in some capacity throughout Hurricane Irma’s wrath.”
She then switches to a sales pitch for Coastal Cloud and what it can offer by way of technology “to move forward from this catastrophic event.” The automated email also went to Nick Klufas, a Palm Coast council member, which to Holland says only proves they were sent to hundreds of public officials.
Holland said the emails weren’t turned over because “they were personal in nature, they didn’t have anything to do with city business,” a finding she said was vetted by the city attorney. (In a sideshow unmentioned in Schottey’s claims, the city some time ago changed the access to public record archives, which could previously be accessed more broadly by employees. Today, all requests including internal requests, must go through the city clerk, one of the few people who has access to the archive.)
Schottey called for Holland’s resignation Saturday. Today he said the emails alone are reason for her resignation, but he acknowledged not having other similar documents indicating a pattern. The emails date back to 2017 and 2018, part of a batch of emails from Orlando’s archive where the rest of Holland’s exchanges involving Coastal Cloud are from her Coastal Cloud account.
Schottey declared himself a candidate shortly after sending a string of flattering texts to Holland on March 4. At the time, Holland had not yet declared her candidacy for a second term.
“Just a coincidence that multiple people in our circles are asking me if I’m running for office?” He texted her. Holland told him she’d heard likewise.
“Well if the choice is between me and the crop of winners currently registered, it might be my duty to,” Schottey texted, apparently using the word “winners” ironically. “Or if they’re the only ones running, I’ll be looking at other cities to move to.” (John Brady, Donald Greene and Alan Lowe are the other candidates for mayor.)
Holland tells him she’d be “announcing very soon,” and would announce other “exciting things to come.”
“You know from even before I worked at the city that I bought into your vision of where this city should be headed,” Schottey wrote her. “If you can’t see that through for whatever reason, I can’t trust the Mayor Vitale or Greene will share the same vision.” (Debra Vitale has since withdrawn her candidacy.)
“I sent a string of nice texts to butter her up and see if she was running,” Schottey said today, saying he was buttering her up to protect the Mad Dogs Flag Football league he’s heavily involved in. He said he was worried she’d retaliate against it. “At the time it was the truth,” he said. That evening he watched the council meeting where Holland and Coastal Cloud co-owner Tim Hale delivered a defense of the company and its voluntary involvement with Palm Coast. That decided it for him, he said: he’d run.
He announced his candidacy on May 1, but made no reference to his turning point, focusing on five issue-oriented goals. Over the last few weeks he’s made more direct statements on his Facebook page challenging Holland and the Coastal Cloud relationship through Palm Coast Connect, the city’s app.
“I don’t know where this guy is coming From,” Holland said, dismissing his claims all around and calling in question their legality, in matters of defamation. She portrayed Schottey as part of a coterie of employees who have resigned, been fired or left the city, “strategizing” with him in his challenge against her. “This is just preposterous. They’re writing a narrative that just doesn’t exist.”