Palm Coast mayoral candidate Alan Lowe on Friday twice aired a 100-second campaign commercial attacking incumbent Mayor Milissa Holland for lying, only to himself repeat a set of lies about her that were proven false months ago, which may amount to lying with reckless disregard for the truth–a legally actionable offense even when attacking a public figure.
Today, Richard Coates, a powerful elections-law attorney based in Tallahassee who represents Holland, sent a cease and desist letter to Ayres and WNZF, but not to Lowe. “Because the advertisement sponsored by the Republican Party of Florida contains false, misleading or deceptive statements, you can and you should pull it from the airwaves,” Coates wrote. (In fact, the commercial was paid for Lowe’s campaign alone, not the Republican Party of Florida. Both Lowe and Holland are Republicans running in an ostensibly non-partisan race.)
“Enough is enough,” Holland said in a statement today. “For weeks now I have been attacked with baseless claims, slanderous attacks, and outright lies. As Mayor of Palm Coast I will no longer tolerate this behavior from my opponent. Today my campaign has filed a cease and desist letter to stop the lies being spread over radio. Any continuation of this behavior by my opponent is absolutely unacceptable and will be met again with legal action.”
“That’s OK because we already have ceased and desisted, because he hasn’t bought anymore,” Ayres said today. “This is his ad, this is what he did, and there’s a lot of political ads with misinformation.” Ayres said fact-checking ads would amount to potential censorship. “It’s not us, it’s him, and it’s all on him, and if he keeps putting out false info its on him it’s not on the messenger.”
Ayers could not be accused of covering for Lowe: Holland is one of Ayers’s more frequent guests on Free For All, and she previously if briefly hosted a show of her own on WNZF as the mayor, the weekly half hour paid by the city.
Lowe confirmed that he’d bought only two spots. “I haven’t bought any more time,” he said today.
Lowe said he’d gotten the information in the contentious part of his ad from the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Palm Coast Observer, saying the Observer “confirmed that there was an ethics investigation.” If the Observer did so, it would have likely been speculating, or basing its reporting on a source’;s allegation: the commission neither confirms nor denies investigations. The News-Journal has previously repeated a claim made in June by ex-Palm Coast communications manager Michael Schottey that Holland was under investigation by the other agencies, merely because Schottey, in the News-Journal reporter’s words, “was adamant those probes are in the works.” But the claim is no less false for having been inaccurately reported, or left unverified.
Lowe’s ads reflect the extent to which false claims about Holland started four months ago have fueled several candidates’ campaigns against her since the primary, conflating some of her misjudgments–which she’s conceded–into allegations of criminal acts and creating a false but damaging narrative that continues to inspire Lowe’s pronouncements against her.
Four months ago, before he was among the defeated in the primary for mayor, Schottey delivered a Facebook-live statement from Town center’s Central Park, alleging that Holland was under criminal investigation by the FBI, the state Attorney General’s office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the state Commission on Ethics. It was and remains the most explosive claim to be made about Holland this election cycle, if not about any candidate running locally.
But it was false.
It was very soon proven to be so in reporting about his statement: neither the FDLE nor the state attorney’s office were investigating Holland, both agencies told FlaglerLive, and neither the ethics commission nor the FBI confirm nor deny that investigations may be going on. FlaglerLive again this week re-confirmed with the State Attorney’s Office in the Seventh Judicial Circuit (which covers Flagler, Volusia, St. Johns and Putnam counties), with the Attorney General’s office in Tallahassee, and with FDLE, that neither Holland nor her administration are under investigation.
This too was true then and is still true four months later of the FBI and the ethics commission: while Schottey says he was himself interviewed by a federal agent, as were others at City Hall, no warrants have been served for any documents from Holland, the city manager or the city clerk. None of the three have been interviewed by the FBI. No presentments have been made or indictments issued by a federal grand jury. Month after month, the ethics commission has revealed no such investigation of Holland or anyone else at City Hall, either. It may yet. But an assertion that Holland is under an ethics investigation is, at this point, unverified.
The ethics commission receives numerous complaints from across the state. Complaints may be filed at no cost by anyone for any reason, and often are for political reasons: even if such an investigation results in a $500 fine, the word “investigation” resonates and sticks to its target: it was just such an investigation that ended up costing former Sheriff Fleming his re-election, though the fine amounted to just $500.
Some complaints the commission receives may have validity, but not necessarily through the ethics commission. Many complaints are frivolous, as county officials found out when Kimberle Weeks, the former supervisor of elections, Mark Richter Jr., a former county commission candidate, and Dennis McDonald, a past and current candidate for City Council, filed complaints the ethics commission tossed out. The county has been pursuing all three for legal fees after winning judgments that the complaints were filed with disregard for the truth.
The ethics commission analyses complains for their validity, it may even conduct an inquiry to decide whether an investigation is warranted. But it only reveals that an investigation has or will take place at its monthly meetings. Holland has not been on the commission’s agenda, nor is she on the Oct. 23 agenda as currently published.
Lowe’s ad, ironically, accuses Holland herself of lying. “Milissa Holland has attacked me in a racially motivated political TV ad that falsely claims I am guilty of criminal misconduct,” Lowe’s ad begins, a reference to a 30-second television ad the Holland campaign started airing last week, triggering her own controversy. Lowe’s statement is a stretch. Holland’s ad states that Lowe “was even charged for theft in Flagler County,” which is accurate: Lowe was charged for petit theft in 1992. The charge was almost immediately dropped. (The document indicates he was arrested, which appears to be a mistake. “From what I can tell he was not arrested, otherwise the State would have done a Nolle Pros [meaning it will not prosecute] instead of a No Information in the case,” said Rick Blaine, manager of criminal courts for the Flagler County Clerk of Courts.) The Holland ad never states Lowe was “guilty of criminal misconduct.” Only Lowe does.
But Holland’s ad was racist: when the statement is made of Lowe’s theft charge, he appears in a picture with an unidentified Black man lifted from Lowe’s Facebook page. The Holland campaign knew nothing of that man. He subsequently identified himself as Phillip Hector in an email Lowe posted on his Facebook page. Hector is a resident of Dominica, the small Caribbean island where Lowe met him in 2017 during a humanitarian mission in the wake of Hurricane Maria, when Lowe says Hector almost lost his life. “I was also told that the commercial made me look like a criminal because I am a black man,” the email attributed to Hector states. “I am not a criminal and I demand a public apology for what she been done.” (Holland has not apologized, but edited Hector out of the ad.)
Two-thirds of Lowe’s radio ad focuses on Holland’s own television commercial and the Hector matter, only incidentally turning to the claim about Holland’s own alleged criminality: “No wonder why you have multiple complaints filed against you with the Florida Ethics Commission,” Lowe states in the ad, “and your administration is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida State Attorney General’s Office, and the FBI.” The statements, either demonstrably false or unverifiable, end up undermining Lowe’s core message about Hector with Lowe’s own dishonesty.
The ad aired days after revelations in reporting by FlaglerLive and the Observer that Lowe had in the 1990s declared himself a “sovereign citizen” who did not recognize the government’s authority, nor that of the Internal Revenue Service, with whom he was in a dispute over unpaid taxes. The FBI ties the sovereign citizen movement to domestic terrorism, and the Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes sovereign citizens as part of hate groups. In an interview last week Lowe said the association was short-lived, and that he had since disavowed his previous convictions.