Flagler County Commissioner Joe Mullins paid the Florida Elections Commission a $750 fine on April 17 to settle allegations that he had accepted $3,500 in illegal campaign contributions during his 2018 run against then-Commissioner Nate McLaughlin.
The Elections Commission ratified the settlement order, or consent agreement, at its June meeting.
Mullins “neither admits nor denies that he violated the Florida Election Code,” the consent order states. “The consent agreement has the same force and effect as a consent agreement reached after the Commission finds probable cause” that a violation of the election laws occurred. State law allows the commission to approve such a consent order before a finding of probable cause.
The case originated with a series of contribution checks written to Mullins’s campaign by different individuals in amounts that Mullins then reimbursed to those individuals, making it appear as if he was channeling money to himself to evade campaign-contribution limits. The arrangement was exposed on Austin Rhodes’s talk radio show in Augusta, Ga.
In April 2018, Kimble Medley, a former candidate for elections supervisor, filed a complaint with the elections commission citing March 2018 Rhodes shows where Rhodes “presented copies of checks that appear to indicate Mr. Mullins reimbursed the contributors listed on his February Candidate Report for the exact amount of their contributions.” The checks were written from Mullins Sports and Entertainment LLC, Mullins’s Augusta-based company. The checks were to employees and family members who had contributed.
“I understand nothing prohibits a candidate from receiving contributions from out-of-state,” Medley wrote, “however, I am concerned the contributions reimbursed by the LLC may represent contributions given in the name of another which may violate” Florida law, which states, “Any person may not make any contribution through or in the name of another, directly or indirectly, in any election.” Medley made further allegations.
Amy McKeever Toman, the executive director of the elections commission wrote Emmett Mitchell, Mullins’s attorney, that she found Medley’s complaint to “contain one or more legally sufficient allegations,” and that four allegations would be investigated.
The four allegations investigated were that Mullins filed one or more incorrect or incomplete campaign finance reports, that he accepted one or more contributions in excess of the legal limit, that he failed to report one or more contributions and that he “falsely reported or deliberately failed to include information in one or more campaign reports” as required by law.
Based on the result of the investigation, a staff attorney was to make written recommendations to the commission as to whether there was probable cause to charge Mullins with violating the law.
The elections commission launched the investigation Flagler County Elections Supervisor Kaiti Lenhart signed an affidavit in May 2019 attesting that she’d provided Mullins with the “Candidate and Campaign Treasurer Handbooks” for both 2016 and 2018, and that Mullins had attended a candidate orientation on February 16, 2018, laying out the rules. Mullins signed a form stating he understood the requirements of law on campaign financing.
It was just days later that the checks to his account were written.
“Commission staff obtained bank records from [Mullins’s] campaign depository at Intracoastal Bank,” the investigative report obtained by FlaglerLive states. “The bank records show that [Mullins] deposited five checks that totaled $3,750.00 on February 27, 2018. The checks included $1,000.00 each from Jennifer A. Mullins, Eden Farms, LLC, and the account of Daniel R. Eden, Jr, and Julie M. Eden, and $500.00 from Heather Buchanan. Ms. Mullins’ check was dated February 20, 2018; the others were dated February 22, 2018. It was also discovered [Mullins] failed to report a $1,000.00 contribution from Mullins Properties- Southern Grace, made on February 28, 2018.”
Jennifer Mullins is Joe Mullins’s sister in law. Julie Eden is his sister. Danny Eden is his brother in law.
Investigators reviewed an audio interview of Heather Buchanan, a former Mullins employee, who appeared on the Austin Rhodes show and said Mullins had her “deliver checks from him to individuals in exchange for checks written by those individuals in the same amounts. She further stated that [Mullins] wrote her a check,” the investigative report states. (“I was sent by Joe to deliver those checks in exchange for a check written from them to Joe Mullins’ campaign,” Buchanan is quoted as saying in a partial transcript of her appearance on the show, according to an investigative report exhibit.)
Joe Mullins signed his own affidavit to the investigators, and provided an explanation for the checks in question.
“My sisters and I are beneficiaries of a trust established by my mother. It distributes $75,000 in March of each year,” he wrote. “As part of the trust arrangement, I am responsible for making payments of roughly $10,000 per year to each of them. I make the payments to my sisters, either from the Mullins Sports & Entertainment, LLC account (“Mullins Sports”) or from one of the Real Estate LLC’s that I manage, Mullins Properties. I have been making those payments to my sisters for at least 4 years and continue to do so. Each of these individuals wanted to support my campaign and make a contribution. They asked that their contribution be taken from their payment. I explained that I could not do that under Florida’s campaign finance laws.
“I wrote checks to my sisters and Ms. Buchanan from Mullins Sports in February 2018. These checks represented a portion of the annual payment I would ordinarily make to them. I also paid my sisters additional funds in March of 2018 in the amount 9K. Those payments were made from the Mullins Sports account.”
Mullins then describes Buchanan as a former employee and one of the contributors to his campaign who “became a subject of funds missing in the corporate office,” according to his affidavit. “When she was confronted, she walked out of the office and never returned. She had made a contribution of $500 to my campaign from funds she would have received from hours worked on extra duties at the corporate office.”
“I don’t mean to get personal with you, but can you afford to give someone a $500 political contribution?” Rhodes had asked Buchanan during her radio interview. Buchanan laughed and said: “No, I sure can’t,” according to the transcript in the investigative report.
In his affidavit, Mullins states he refunded Buchanan on April 16, 2018, after he learned that she “didn’t want to make the contribution,” and reported the refund on his April 2018 campaign finance report. “To the best of my knowledge, all of the campaign finance reports I have filed for this election are true and accurate reports of my contributions and expenditures,” he attested. “Additionally, I have not falsely reported or deliberately failed to include any information on any of my campaign reports for this election. I never intended to try to circumvent any Florida contribution limits by accepting contributions from these individuals, nor was it my intention that Mullins Sports would be somehow considered as the ultimate source for the contributions in question.”
Medley said she was satisfied with the settlement, but not the length of time it took to resolve, “because quite honestly I think it’s deterrent for anyone that’s trying to do any homework on a candidate,” she said, especially if something questionable is discovered and warrants investigating. “If it is OK, fine, I’ll go away, just tell me, but for it to take two years–what if the amount had been larger? Now we’re two years away from it, he’s in office.”