Ed Danko, the Palm Coast City Council member working on behalf of Alan Lowe to get him elected mayor, has been making misleading or baseless statements, including stating outright lies and leveling false and potentially defamatory accusations about former Mayor Milissa Holland, her ailing daughter and to some extent former City Manager Matt Morton, a FlaglerLive investigation found.
Danko was captured on a video obtained by FlaglerLive campaigning door-to-door on Monday (July 12) at a local resident’s home in Palm Coast and making what appears to be his standard pitch. He claims explicitly–as he has not in more public forums–that Gov. Ron DeSantis himself threatened Holland either to resign or face criminal charges.
“Ron DeSantis came here, and said: ‘Either resign or I’ll pass the criminal charges up,’” Danko tells the resident. “She abruptly resigned, she used her daughter as an excuse.”
It is a lie, and the governor’s office refuted the claim. “That’s not how this works, it’s impossible,” Taryn Fenske, Gov. DeSantis’s communications director, told FlaglerLive today.
Danko in his campaign stop called Holland herself a liar for claiming she resigned to take care of her daughter, and made light of the daughter’s illness. Holland’s daughter had a liver transplant in 2019 and has been struggling since. Danko claimed she wasn’t really ill but waitressing at a Flagler Beach restaurant. His statements to the resident, framing his support for Lowe, contained numerous other misleading or false claims.
The Danko claims in his campaign pitch, paired with his recent public statements from the Palm Coast City Council dais making similarly baseless claims, along with Lowe’s own history of making false, misleading and inaccurate statements in this race and previously, including about Holland, paint a campaign operating on the margins of fact and in contempt of any accountability for their statements.
Lowe, 60, had himself previously placed himself on the margin of law-abiding society when he renounced his citizenship in his early 30s, sued the IRS, among others, and went as far as suing John Rogers, the tow operator (and now a Bunnell city commissioner), for repossessing belongings on behalf of the IRS. More recently he used a picture of himself and the governor on a campaign item without the governor’s permission, drawing a rebuke from the Republican Party of Florida. Lowe also refused to be interviewed about his campaign in general.
Over the past two days FlaglerLive repeatedly emailed both Lowe and Danko a list of questions about the recent Holland matter, the governor’s alleged involvement, and statements made on the campaign trail. Danko, who is running Lowe’s campaign, was also texted the questions and a follow-up. Neither answered.
Holland resigned on May 18, less than a year into her second term. Morton resigned nine days later. Morton blamed interference from Danko and Council member Victor Barbosa, who had called for Morton’s firing (and who is under federal investigation). Danko was and remains under internal (and now independent) investigation on allegations he interfered with city employees in violation of the city charter. The investigation so far paints the portrait of Danko as boorish, unapologetic, and hyper-partisan.
Danko has been derisive of Holland since he ran for the commission last year, when he embraced and peddled baseless claims at the time. But he first made his accusations about Holland from the dais at the end of the July 7 Palm Coast City Council meeting, when he also pledged to fire Interim Manager Denise Bevan and City Attorney Bill Reischmann once Lowe was elected. Perhaps recognizing how easily his statement could be verified if uttered in a public setting, Danko did not mention the governor in his accusations from the dais.
“I had a confidential off the record briefing from senior law enforcement three weeks ago,” Danko claimed. “You folks may not know this, but Milissa Holland did not resign because of her daughter. Briefing I received, she resigned because there were criminal charges in the ethics complaint that was followed–filed against her by our former compliance officer, Jay Maher. Nine days later, Matt Morton resigns.” Danko went on for several minutes, making several other baseless claims.
Asked by Mayor Eddie Branquinho, Danko refused to reveal either the name of the person he claimed was a senior law enforcement officer, the person’s rank, or even the agency with which the person worked. Branquinho asked Danko to arrange a similar briefing for him. Branquinho never heard from anyone.
In the Ring Doorbell video FlaglerLive obtained, Danko’s statements are sharper, more accusatory, and even more replete with falsehoods or mischaracterizations. (The couple who provided the video are registered Republicans and Trump supporters, but they said they felt something was amiss in Danko’s pitch on behalf of Lowe. Danko and Lowe are both in the leadership of the local Trump Club.)
“Hi, I’m City Councilman Ed Danko and I’m out talking to voters today,” he starts, clearly introducing himself as a council member, thus gaining the legitimacy that an ordinary solicitor or campaign worker would not. Danko continues with the assurance of a well-rehearsed pitch. “I don’t know if you’re aware that there’s an election for a new mayor this month. Our previous mayor resigned, city manager resigned.”
“Yeah, her daughter was sick, I think?” the woman who had answered the door says. (Danko was not invited in.)
“Yeah, that’s a lie, but,” Danko says.
“She resigned because of, um, there were ethic complaints against her and the city manager. It went to the Ethics Commission–” Danko says.
“Wasn’t she, um, like a descendant of somebody that was a mayor previously?” the woman asks, an allusion to Jim Holland, Milissa’s father and a founding member of the Palm Coast City Council. He died in 2002.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Danko says.
“OK, I know a little bit,” the woman says. (She later explained in an interview that she wanted to let Danko know she was not disconnected from the local political scene.)
“Yeah. But she had ethics complaints against her along with the city manager,” Danko continues, “the ethics complaints revealed–at least this is the briefing I got from law enforcement–it revealed criminal charges, went to the governor’s office, Ron DeSantis came here, and said: ‘Either resign or I’ll pass the criminal charges up.’ She abruptly resigned, she used her daughter as an excuse, who had problems in the past but is working as a waitress at a restaurant in Flagler Beach, so, couldn’t be too ill. Six days later the city manager abruptly resigned, too.”
“So that’s why we’re having this new election,” Danko says. “These two people have cost us a quarter of a million dollars to run this election, plus his severance pay. And, I mean, I’m outraged by it, he got less than two years on the job, he quits under a cloud of suspicion, he gets $47,000 in severance. Is that crazy? That is crazy. And that is our tax dollars.”
“Meanwhile, I work hard,” the woman says.
“Yes, exactly. So, um…”
The residents provided three of the four video clips in the sequence. They were not able to recover the roughly 60 to 90-second, third clip, in which, they said, Danko made his pitch for Lowe, passed the woman a door hanger, and spoke about the campaign’s basic tenets. The video picks up again when Danko is leaving and the two are making small talk.
“The governor hasn’t actually been in Flagler since before he was elected governor,” Fenske, the governor’s communications director, said. “This claim seems like a local issue that they’re trying to drag higher people into.” Of Holland, Fenske said “there’s no way the governor would have shown up to her office and threatened her because it’s not in his capability.” (DeSantis made his first Palm Coast appearance as governor today, appearing at the opening ceremonies of Palm Coast Little League’s hosting of the state little league championship this weekend.)
Even before Fenske had discredited the Danko claims, there were numerous problems from a legal and procedural standpoint with what Danko claimed he’d been told. His narrative as told at the council or to the resident points to a lack of familiarity with the Ethics Commission process, Florida law and the governor’s authority.
There is little question that Holland is facing an ethics complaint filed by Maher. That complaint has been wending its way through the commission’s process. It may or may not lead to a probable cause finding. But the complaints must be kept in perspective. They often lead to no findings, or else to fines in the hundreds of dollars, sometimes more, sometimes none. Political opponents often use such complaints–which require little more than typing, an envelope and a stamp to enter the commission’s process–as means of discrediting or bringing ill repute to their targets, since the filers can then claim that the target is “under investigation,” whatever the outcome. Former City Manager Jim Landon once faced a complaint. It was found to have no merit. County commissioners several years ago were the preferred targets of such complaints, especially from Kimberle Weeks, the former supervisor of elections (and now a convicted felon) and Dennis McDonald, the perennial political candidate. The complaints were declared frivolous, and the county sued both to recover legal fees from both. The fees have run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Whether it is found to have merit or not, the complaint against Holland will be made public once the process is over. But there are no such things as criminal charges coming out of the Ethics Commission, as Danko portrayed it.
“The Ethics commission can’t charge anyone criminally,” Kerrie Stillman, the chief spokesperson for the Ethics Commission, said. The commission deals only in civil matters. It only recommends fines. It does not even impose them: that’s up to the governor’s office or the Attorney General’s office.
It is possible–but extremely rare–that the commission will forward a recommendation or suggestion to the governor or state police agency to look into a matter that may be criminal. But even that approach is strictly controlled.
“Our statutes are civil in nature, we would not send to the governor criminal allegations, we would not make criminal allegations to the governor,” Stillman said. “If the commission as referenced in [law] wanted to send something to the state attorney or FDLE,” meaning the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, “we would not be making criminal charges. We would be providing charges for them to review as to whether or not they deem it appropriate for them to review. But other agencies don’t play a role as to whether or not we are investigating alleged conducts.” In other words, neither law enforcement agencies nor the governor’s office get involved at that stage.
For any matter to reach the point where the Ethics Commission does convey such a charge for review, it would have had to be voted on by the commission itself first: the case would have had to be ruled on, and the moment it’s ruled on, it would have had to be disclosed publicly. Only then may it legally cross that other step, with the possibility of a criminal charge being reviewed by law enforcement or the governor. Ethics staffers are not allowed to “pass on” charges or documentation to any law enforcement agency or the governor. Nor is it in the governor’s–or any state official’s–authority to meddle in the commission’s business.
“The commission body itself would have to make that decision, and the commission does that in a meeting,” Stillman said. “For final action they take final action in a public session meeting, people can watch that. That’s a matter of public record. But all the decisions, regardless whether they’re made in a closed session or an open session, become a public record.”
The Holland case, at wherever stage it may be currently, has not reached that step. As late as Thursday, Stillman was not even confirming or denying the case’s existence, as is standard practice with a case that has not yet gone before Ethics Commission review. Nor would she confirm or deny its existence to a law enforcement official. So it would have been impossible for any documentation or determination to reach the governor regarding Holland–not within the parameters of Florida law, not within the parameters of the rules of the Commission on Ethics.
Yet that’s what Danko has been claiming.
That’s what Fenske said is not possible. “That’s not how this works, it’s impossible,” she said. “It sounds like they don’t have an answer, ‘let’s just throw it up in the air and bring Governor DeSantis into it.”
DeSantis was, in fact, in Ormond Beach for a bill-signing at Houligan’s at 9 a.m. on May 13. Holland resigned five days later. Holland was not in Ormond Beach that day. Fenske checked DeSantis’s “entire schedule,” she said. He has not had a meeting with Holland. “I even went back to that time and looked at his calendar and nope, there is no meeting.”
Holland herself was categorical about having no contact–not only with DeSantis, but with anyone associated with his administration. “Absolutely not,” she said. “Absolutely not. Unequivocally, 100 percent, no conversation had taken place either with the governor’s office, the governor himself, I’ve had zero interactions with the governor directly and indirectly in any regard.” That goes for his officials as well: “Not any law enforcement official at any level about this or anything else.”
She tried to think back to the last time she’d spoken to DeSantis. It predated his election to the governorship in 2018, back to when he was a congressman representing Flagler.
FlaglerLive independently had previously gotten written confirmation from the Attorney General’s Office and FDLE that Holland was not under investigation. The State Attorney’s Office in the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler, three times since last year, including last week, has said that there are no investigations involving Holland. There are also allegations that the FBI is “investigating.” The FBI neither confirms nor denies investigations.
Which leaves only the Ethics Commission investigation as the focal point of the alleged issue that supposedly led to Holland’s resignation–now itself a claim that may be discredited, built as it appears to be on thin conspiratorial threads.
There are also Danko’s other falsehoods and misleading statements as he spoke to the constituent at her door. He claimed that Morton got a $47,000 severance. That is false. Morton got nothing in severance. His final check was $47,000, but it included his regular pay from his last weeks with the city, and it included back pay for vacation and sick leave he did not take, and to which he is entitled under Florida law. Danko claimed Morton was with the city less than two years. He was not. He had passed his second-year anniversary, and Danko himself had given him good marks in his two-year evaluation and voted him a substantial raise. Danko claimed Morton left under a “cloud of suspicion.” He had not. The only “suspicion” in play was the one Danko has been fabricating in tandem with his fabrications about Holland’s “criminal charges.”
Danko claimed the special election is costing the city “a quarter of a million dollars.” It is not. The supervisor of elections provided a high estimate of $188,000, assuming the election were to draw an overwhelming turnout. Danko also blamed Morton for the cost, though Morton has nothing to do with it–nor, for that matter, does Holland: the election, as opposed to an appointment, is required by a charter approved by voters.
Finally, there’s Danko’s turn about Holland’s daughter who, he claimed, “had problems in the past but is working as a waitress at a restaurant in Flagler Beach, so, couldn’t be too ill.” The statement appears to be a gratuitous cruelty, considering the public history of Holland’s daughter’s illness.
Holland’s daughter had worked at Java Joint in Flagler Beach before her liver transplant in late 2019. She had also worked at Metro Diner in Palm Coast. Java Joint had held a fund-raiser for her when she was in a coma for many weeks, at a hospital in Miami.
“I wish that my daughter was able to be a waitress or be gainfully employed anywhere at this time. That would be absolutely a gift,” Holland said. “But she’s never been employed anywhere since then and she certainly was limited in her capacity pre-transplant for how long she could keep a job because she was in the hospital 80 percent of the time.”
Holland has consulted an attorney and is considering a defamation lawsuit against Danko. She was shocked by his dismissive statements about her daughter. “I cannot even believe that I’m even having to state that,” Holland said, of having had to explain her daughter’s work history. “That to me is very disgusting and so upsetting that someone would feel the need to make something up to benefit themselves and their friends politically. It’s just an all-new low.”