If a local “watchdog” group wants to contest the ethical propriety of Commissioner Barbara Revels’s vote last summer to buy the old Memorial Hospital in Bunnell for conversion into a Sheriff’s Operations Center, the group may well do so—but not in Flagler County Circuit Court, Flagler County Commission Attorney Al Hadeed argues. The group has no standing in circuit court, but may take its case to the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Hadeed makes those arguments in the motion he filed last week to dismiss a lawsuit filed late last month by a new group that calls itself the Flagler Palm Coast Watchdogs.
When Revels was part of the 4-1 majority that voted to acquire the hospital for $1.23 million from a trio of local investors, she did not file a form required by ethics laws indicating that she had a business relationship with Bruce Page, one of the investors. Page is the CEO of Intracoastal Bank, in which Revels has $100,000 worth of stocks, according to the financial disclosure form she’s required to file as an office holder. Haddeed says the form filing prior to the vote was not required, as the hospital transaction did not involve Intracoastal Bank, and Revels’s finances were already transparent. The Watchdogs disagree, claiming that Revels had a conflict of interest that should have compelled her to recuse herself from the vote, and explain her recusal.
The county’s motion to dismiss does not attempt to invalidate the claim that Revels violated the state’s ethics laws. Only to remove the court from the equation. In fact, a complaint was filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics making the same charge against Revels, but by a different, if politically related, individual–Ray Stevens, the former candidate for sheriff.
The Watchdogs group is actually one man, Daniel Bozza, who works closely with the Ronald Reagan Republican Assembly of Flagler County, the temperamentally secretive right-wing group aiming to subvert the local Republican establishment. (When Bozza spoke to the group earlier this week at the Palm Coast Community Center, Bob Hamby, who heads the group, barred Kimble Medley, a former Republican candidate for Supervisor of Elections–whose first name should not prompt confusion with current Supervisor Kimberle Weeks–from attending.)
Bozza would not disclose the names of other members of the group, if any, when asked after he filed the lawsuit last month, but said the group is seeking a non-profit designation and intends to be the conduit for fund-raising that would then underwrite the filing of more lawsuits against local government.
Hadeed’s motion, in a sleight of rhetorical jujutsu, uses those intentions to make one of a half dozen arguments concluding that the group has no standing to sue the county in circuit court—at least not over the issues it raised against Revels and cited concerning Commissioner Frank Meeker. (Hadeed does not mention either commissioner by name in his motion.) Since the group leaves its identity imprecise, it does not show that it has been “ affected in a substantially different manner or degree” by the county’s purchase of the hospital any more than have other county residents at large.
“The reality is that [the Watchdogs group] does not stand in a superior position to the rest of Florida citizenry, with respect to the right to ensure public accountability and transparency, and if there has been a failure to be accountable or transparent, the plaintiff does not suffer a greater harm than the rest of the community. Absent the demonstration if a special injury, the plaintiff has no standing.”
In plainer English: Cheekiness, evasion or secrecy undermine the legitimacy of the Watchdogs’ claims.
But the legal heart of Hadeed’s motion goes to a simpler matter.
Florida law—the state constitution and state statutes—make clear who arbitrates what. In matters of ethics, the nine-member Florida Commission on Ethics was created to investigate the alleged ethics breaches of public officials, interpret ethics laws and recommend penalties or further action when laws are found to have been broken. Florida law specifically removes circuit courts from that responsibility, granting that authority to the ethics commission. Less than two years ago, Rodolfo Pedraza, a resident of Miami, filed suit challenging the validity of Frank Hernandez to run for county judge, because Hernandez had allegedly not included his home mortgage as a liability in financial disclosures. The court dismissed the suit, saying it was up to the ethics commission exclusively to make that determination. Hadeed cites that case in his argument to the circuit court.
“The trial court lacks not only the authority but the unique resources and processes of the Ethics Commission to investigate and report violations of the Code of Ethics,” Hadeed’s motion reads. “The trial courts do not have the experience or the body of jurisprudence developed by the Commission since its creation in the 1970s for addressing violations of the Code of Ethics.”
Beyond that, Hadeed had difficulties citing a claim by the Watchdogs that amounted to more than an opinion that the purchase of the old hospital was a bad deal. The Watchdogs had cited Commissioner Frank Meeker’s column explaining his vote—a reluctant vote, but a vote for the hospital purchase nonetheless. Extrapolating from Meeker’s column, the Watchdogs used the piece as evidence that the buy was ill-advised. But Meeker had merely described how he came to his decision, and at no point suggested that, aside from the usual lobbying and second guessing extant in such proceedings, anything improper or illegal was taking place.
“The remaining factual allegations of the complaint,” Hadeed’s motion goes on, again turning the Watchdogs’ own arguments against the group, “do no more than express the opinion of the plaintiff that the purchase of the former hospital property was not wise.”
Hedeed’s full motion to dismiss is below.