Dennis McDonald, the candidate running for a Palm Coast City Council seat in a fifth attempt at elected office, may be declared in contempt of court over $80,000 he owes Flagler County government as reimbursement for legal fees and interest after he filed an ethics complaint against a former county commissioner that was judged frivolous and false.
The Attorney General filed the contempt motion against McDonald last week in Leon County Circuit Court.
It is the latest development of a set of related cases that have been embroiling commissioners and the administration for years, and the most serious legal charge McDonald has faced to date in that particular case, the money owed aside. County Attorney Al Hadeed said McDonald faces the possibility of jail if he does not comply with state orders.
Last fall, the state Ethics Commission lambasted McDonald for his “complete disregard for law” and for “thumbing his nose” at the process as it imposed a $4,000 fine in an unrelated case and publicly reprimanded him.
Asked by text, email and a phone message if he intended to pay the $80,000, and what he makes of being in contempt, McDonald replied by text: “I will forward your comments to my lawyer,” leaving his answer on the matter unclear. In a subsequent text, he said, referring to the financial disclosure form the Attorney General’s office was seeking from him (and that ultimately prompted the contempt motion), “Never received the request which would have been given to my attorney.” (The document was mailed to his post office box in Flagler Beach. See below.)
In an interview last year, when the bill he owed had grown to $70,000, from $59,000 before he decided to appeal the judgment, he said he had no intention to pay and said he didn’t know what the judgment was about. He said the state ethics commission–to which he’d filed his complaint–was “absolutely out of control.”
McDonald and acolytes, like others across the state, at times file ethics commission complaints to cause public embarrassment and political damage to the officials targeted. An ethics complaint is just that–a complaint that anyone can file for the cost of a stamp. It doesn’t mean the complaint will be investigated. It doesn’t mean the complaint has merit. If it does, penalties for ethics violations are civil fines of from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. But opponents of political figures generate attention–and media mileage–when they can claim that so and so is “under investigation by the ethics commission,” merely from knowledge that a complaint has been filed, however frivolous the claim.
As such complaints were piling up against county officials in Flagler County government between 2014 and 2016, the county decided to fight back, especially since the complaints were often manufactured from baseless allegations, knowingly false claims, innuendoes and in some cases, defamation. Finding them such, the ethics commission ruled in favor of the county recouping its legal fees.
That started a different set of legal maneuvers–and evasions.
Updating county commissioners on a trio of cases, McDonald’s among them, on Monday, Hadeed described McDonald evading a private investigator hired by the Attorney General’s office in attempts to locate him and serve him court papers, to the point that McDonald “attempted to run into his backyard, and to avoid the process, but he was effectively served in his garage,” Hadeed said. Still, McDonald refused to acknowledge the papers, filed several motions with the court, was denied, and now faces the contempt charge.
McDonald previously twice ran for a county commission seat, for a state Senate seat and for Palm Coast mayor. He is now running in the special election for a Palm Coast City Council seat, promising, among other issues, to “sweep the Palm Coast City Hall clean,” and charging that an (alleged) FBI investigation of Mayor Milissa Holland “is an embarrassment.” (Holland is also frequently said to be under an “ethics investigation” by her opponents.)
The claim that the mayor is under investigation has been perpetuated by former employees, some of whom have been interviewed by the FBI. The FBI neither confirms nor denies current investigations. The same employees have falsely claimed that the mayor was also under investigation by the Attorney General and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Both agencies have flatly denied that she or the city administration are under investigation.
But it is undeniable that McDonald has been at the center of a legal case against him by the Attorney General and that a circuit court in Leon County and the First District Court of Appeal have upheld the Attorney General’s case and rejected McDonald’s appeals. The case stems from a Florida Commission on Ethics complaint McDonald filed against former Commissioner George Hanns in 2015, one of numerous such frivolous complaints being filed against county officials at the time.
Former Elections Supervisor Kimberle Weeks and former County Commission candidate Mark Richter also filed complaints similarly found to be frivolous and false. Weeks filed complaints against Commissioner Charlie Ericksen and Hadeed. (Weeks has since been found guilty of seven felonies for unrelated lawbreaking and was sentenced to a short term in jail, is on probation until the beginning of 2022, and has lost her state pension.) Richter filed one against the late Commissioner Frank Meeker, one against former Commissioner Nate McLaughlin. Weeks owes the county $168,000. Richter owes $150,000.
All three filers followed the same approach when faced with the Attorney General’s investigator, either evading him or refusing to acknowledge the papers after the Leon County Circuit Court authorized the hiring of the private investigator to find them.
Richter was found in Georgia after he’d been in South Carolina. “They had to follow him around,” Hadeed said. Hadeed said Richter “claimed that he was not the individual, and the officer, the investigator, the certified investigator had his ID, all his information and knew that that was him, and he refused to take the papers and so he just physically left them there and filed his affidavit of service. And of course that was accepted by the court as you would expect. He attempted to have his case dismissed now that it was lawfully recognized. The court issued an order in September denying his motion to dismiss and directing that he file an answer 30 days hence from the order.” That was last Monday. A check of the docket showed there was no answer by the deadline.
With Weeks, the investigator had to engage in “reconnaissance on her property” for several days. She then refused to accept the papers, though the papers were left on the property. She filed numerous motions. The court dismissed them all for failure to follow the rules and directed an order that she had to file an answer by Oct. 15.
At one point Weeks asked that Kaiti Lenhart, the current elections supervisor, be substituted as a defendant. The court denied the request. The day of the deadline, in yet another strange twist in a saga of twists, Jane Gentile-Youd, the former county commission candidate and one of the more acerbic critics of county government–and of all things Hadeed–attempted to get Ericksen “to sign a voluntary dismissal of the $69,000 judgment against Ms. Weeks,” Hadeed said.
“You have to understand, this is monkeying with a pending case,” Hadeed said. The attorney general had no knowledge of it. Of course Ericksen declined and reported the attempt to the attorney general’s office.
As for McDonald, he’d filed an appeal of the judgment against him in the First District Court of Appeal. It was denied. The district court also cited McDonald’s failure to follow the rules and added more fees on top of those levied by the ethics commission. Judgment was entered against him by the court for $80,000, which required him, within 45 days, to file a full disclosure of his finances and those of his spouse, in order that the penal judgment could be collected in favor of Flagler County.” (McDonald is married to Janet McDonald, who chairs the school board).
McDonald did not file the disclosure form, prompting the move to declare him in contempt–and raising the possibility of jail.
“I don’t understand how any of the three of them can keep not responding to the court. At what point does it stop?” Commissioner Greg Hansen asked. “Because he’s not going to reply to this contempt of court thing.”
“Let’s say if he didn’t, then the judge is going to enter some sort of determination based on the finding of willful contempt,” Hadeed said. “It could be jail. It could be a fine. It could be an arrest. It depends on how the court–the court is going to decide this based on the facts and how the Attorney General argues it. As you can see in all the cases, although they’ve been strung out, like for instance the evasion of service.”
“What they are doing is avoiding the very accountability that they insisted that we abide by in the filing of their complaints. It’s literally a tale of two cities, accountability and lack of accountability,” Hadeed continued. “And what is particularly galling is the amount of time–here I am providing this report, here I am still following this stuff. I could have spent more time on the dunes. Or some other important project. So they continue to eat up our time. But it is the process that we’re in, and I hope the public understands that these individuals are not reliable. They are not good citizens. They are not paying what their due is.”
“And they run for office,” Hansen said wryly. Hadeed opened his palms in acknowledgment.
He wasn’t done. Earlier this year McDonald had appeared before the commission to make “two highly slanderous comments,” Hadeed said, to which he said he would response. He finally did. One of the comments was that Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan had threatened to kill McDonald. The claim goes back to a statement during an interview, published in FlaglerLive in late 2018, when Sullivan was discussing financial claims related to the disused Sheriff’s Operations building. McDonald had claimed that the county administrator had told Sullivan that the price of fixing the building at $1 million. McDonald made the claim to commissioners at a meeting, and walked out.
“The key issue here is did I get that million dollar number from Coffey, and that’s just no, absolutely not,” Sullivan said during the interview at the time. “I am sick of Dennis McDonald pulling these stunts like he did last night. He raises these issues and just walks out, doesn’t even wait for an answer. I’m tired after years of dealing with him, that’s it. If he wants a hand to hand battle I’ll kill him. That’s it. If he wants [to battle] on puns, I’ll beat him on puns.”
McDonald filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office, claiming Sullivan had threatened him. The complaint went nowhere. But McDonald has continued to claim that Sullivan threatened his life, doing so at a commission meeting last February. (He called it “a teachable moment” for students and as a spur for a code of conduct.)
“The context was quite clear,” Hadeed said on Monday, saying Sullivan’s statement was “a figure of speech that was made by Mr. Sullivan, the context was quite clear,” while McDonald’s claim was “an absolutely slanderous comment, and I don’t know that anybody would believe it.”
The second comment McDonald made was during a discussion about selling the old sheriff’s operations center in Bunnell. “There cannot be an involvement of the county engineer Faith al-Khatib,” McDonald said of the county engineer, before going on to indirectly tying her to “the fact that this building poisoned over 30 of our deputies and staff.” He said he’d warned al-Khatib of problems with the building in 2013 and 2015 but she “just never said a thing.”
Hadeed on Monday said McDonald claimed al-Khatib “intentionally poisoned the sheriff’s deputies at the operations center,” a mis-characterization of McDonald’s statement: McDonald never said al-Khatib intentionally poisoned anyone. The McDonald statement, and the context of his statement–important distinction, given the weight of context and intent Hadeed himself had given to the Sullivan “threat” just moments earlier–at most suggest she was, in McDonald’s view, negligent.
But if there was any doubt about what McDonald was saying at the commission meeting, he left no such doubt in a November 2019 email to the county’s chief building inspector, when he explicitly accused two county commissioners “for continuing to poison our deputies and staff since 2016.” To Hadeed, he was similarly slandering al-Khatib.
Hadeed went on: “That is grotesque. It is a grotesque slander. I would tell you this in response to that: I know that Mr. McDonald passes himself off as an experienced contractor. He has yet, ever, to produce a contractor’s license. He is not a registered contractor in the state of Florida. I know that he has moved here from Connecticut and maybe he was a contractor there. But he’s been asked about this, and he’s never produced any credentials showing that he was a contractor capable of rendering the opinions that he did. And his assertions, one after the other, were misrepresentations or false.”
Even if McDonald were a contractor 15 years ago, his knowledge would not be current with codes on the books now, Hadeed said, before asserting that no report found conclusively that the employees in the old sheriff’s operations building were sickened by the building. Nor did a judge in workers’ compensation cases find that the building was at fault in the employees’ claims.