Last Updated: 5:02 p.m.
In a decision that may seriously damage his re-election chances in less than three weeks, the Florida Commission on Ethics today found probable cause that Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming violated the state code of ethics when he accepted a free, gift membership to the Hammock Beach Resort, and subsequently, for years, accepted meals at discount there–gifts not offered to the general public.
The 7-3 decision by the 10-member ethics panel–made up of five Republicans and five Democrats–is the result of an ethics complaint filed against Fleming in April by James Williams, a former Hammock Beach Resort employee, who said in his complaint that Fleming approached him in 2005 and asked if he could obtain a gift membership to the club. Williams had also worked at the sheriff’s office on Fleming’s watch, for just six months between 2007 and 2008, when he was fired without cause.
Soon after the complaint was filed, Fleming said he’d done nothing wrong, describing the membership as having “no dollar value.” That was not accurate. A one-time initiation fee levied at property owners in the development costs $20,000, with annual dues approaching $5,000 for member access to the resort’s many amenities.
In a news release issued by the sheriff’s office this afternoon, Fleming maintained a level of innocence: “Although the Ethics Commission concluded that the honorary membership should be been reported, until their investigation was completed, I did not know the honorary membership was valued at more than $100,” he said.
But the ethics commission does not accept ignorance of the law as a defense, nor is the gift membership considered “honorary,” since it had monetary value and was, in fact, a gift.
The release goes on to state that “the Sheriff said when he accepted the membership, it was his understanding that he would pay for meals. He said he did not use any other facilities at the resort, other than the dining room.” And it quotes Fleming again: “Once I learned that the meals had been discounted and that the membership could be considered a gift under the ethics laws, I reimbursed the resort for the full amount of the discounts and resigned my membership.”
Fleming reportedly paid some $4,000 back to the resort.
Fleming is in a tight re-election race against Jim Manfre, the former sheriff and Fleming’s challenger four years ago, when Manfre lost by less than 1,000 votes. Manfre wasted no time seizing on the commission’s findings.
“It shows that the sheriff has embarrassed this community, those he has pledged to protect and serve, and he’s embarrassed the sheriff’s office by the finding that he in fact has violated the code of ethics. It’s been recently reported that Florida has one of the highest rates of corruption of any state, and it’s been reported that the ethics code needs to be tightened in order to prevent corruption, and one of the basic ways that public officials are corrupted is by accepting gifts from organizations for no other reason than the fact that they are public officials. So he’s violated a basic public trust by accepting this gift, then he violated the law by not reporting it. The ethics code is a law and he’s violated the law. It’s that simple. He’s the top law enforcement official in our community, and he’s now been charged with violating the law, so his credibility as a top law enforcement officer has now been injured. It’s now broken.”
Williams, who filed the ethics charge, is a supporter of Manfre’s candidacy.
Florida law doesn’t bar public officials from receiving gifts. But if the gifts exceed $100, they must be disclosed on the official’s quarterly gift disclosure form (Form 9). In September 2009, for example, Fleming reported receiving a replica firearm from Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, a gift valued at $189.50. In 2007, he reported getting a $150 gift certificate to the Marriott Sawgrass Hotel and Spa, from St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar. In July 2006, he reported receiving a $1,000 diamond pendant, won in a drawing, and gifted from Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson.
The ethics commission’s official order regarding the Fleming case won’t be published until Wednesday, when it will shed more details on the commission’s reasoning and findings of probable cause. The commission’s spokeswoman neither confirmed nor denied so much as the existence of a case pending against Fleming, as is the commission’s right under the law, until the order is officially made public. It was somewhat surprising that the sheriff’s office disclosed the matter before Wednesday, though in several internal regards, the sheriff’s office has been at times quite forthcoming with information.
The next step for the commission is to levy a fine against Fleming, which could be in the hundreds of dollars or in the thousands of dollars.
Fleming is still entitled to a hearing before the full commission, should he decide to dispute the charges. From today’s statements, it appears that Fleming will not do so. Disputing the commission’s findings entails what amounts to something very similar to a trial, where the defendant may bring witnesses and have his or her case argued before the commission, which sits in judgment. That level of litigation can be time-consuming and expensive.