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Ethics Commission Rejects Settlement With Sheriff Manfre, Reopening Case on All Charges

| December 16, 2014

Virlindia Doss, right, the executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, and

Virlindia Doss, right, the executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, and Linda Robinson, who chairs the commission, during Friday’s hearing on the Jim Manfre matter. (Florida Channel)

Citing an incomplete investigation and raising numerous questions about Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre’s use of government property or tax dollars for personal purposes, the Florida Commission on Ethics on Friday rejected an agreement that would have reduced three alleged ethics charges against Manfre to one and asked for a renewed investigation, placing all charges back in play.

In a pair of 7-2 votes, the commission at the end of an hour-long hearing asked investigators to seek answers to questions about what policies were in place—or not—when Manfre is alleged to have violated ethics rules, whether he was motivated to correct the alleged violations on his own or because he was facing sanctions, and whether his then-finance director, Linda Bolante, who brought the ethics charges against Manfre, was forced to resign as a result of her complaint, among other matters.

Along the way, Manfre’s practices and claims of innocence until cautioned otherwise came under withering criticism by several members of the commission. They were incredulous at a high public official claiming not to know basic rules of spending the public dime and the use of public property, regardless of policies in place or not in place.

The commission does not set a timeline for its investigations. Sid Nowell, Manfre’s attorney in Flagler—he was not at the commission hearing Friday—said the decision starts the process back at zero.

On May 16, Bolante, who’d worked at the Sheriff’s Office for 14 years starting in July 2000, filed an ethics complaint against Manfre, citing at least three instances where Manfre used a sheriff’s vehicle for personal travel out of state, charged personal meals, including alcohol, to his sheriff’s issued credit cardused the under-sheriff’s time-share property without reporting the gift, and once asked for a paycheck to be issued early. After an extensive investigation, the commission advocate initially recommended that the commission find probable cause of ethics violations on three of the four counts. The matter of the paycheck was dismissed. That would have potentially exposed Manfre to three penalties and several thousand dollars in fines.

The advocate and Manfre’s attorney, Tallahassee-based Linda Barnett, then negotiated a settlement, much as a prosecutor and a defense attorney negotiate a plea agreement. Manfre agreed to admit to one of the three remaining counts—taking a trip to Tennessee with a sheriff’s vehicle. The other two counts would be dropped, leaving the sheriff facing a $1,500 fine, but also an admission of an ethics violation. It was that so-called “stipulation agreement” that was before the ethics commission when it met last Friday.

Audio: Full Hearing of Ethics Commission on Manfre Charges (62 mn)
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The commission could either accept or reject that agreement. It could not amend it, accept it in part or reject it in part, as one of the commissioners sought to do. So it rejected it.

Along the way, commissioners’ discussion made clear that the rejection was not because there was too much doubt about the veracity behind the charges, but because there was too much discomfort, among commissioners, in setting aside two of the three charges—if those charges were found to be true. In other words, the commission is taking a tougher stance against Manfre, appearing less disposed to settle out the charges.

Playing into the commission’s discussion was a last-minute, four-page, single-spaced letter by Bolante, which was handed out to the commissioners just as they were beginning the discussion. Manfre’s attorney had not had a chance to respond to it. But Bolante’s letter was a response to Barnett, Manfre’s attorney, who had painted a portrait of Bolante as a disgruntled ex-employee who had failed the sheriff by not keeping him on the right side of his department’s ethics rules. Barnett repeatedly said that whatever mistakes were made, Manfre had shown no “corrupt intent.”

Bolante emphatically rejected Barnett’s interpretation, calling it defamatory, and disagreed with the settlement. She said Barnett’s claim that there was no corrupt intent “is incredible given that, as I reported and the investigation is aware,” Bolante wrote, “Mr. Manfre engaged in the same type of conduct during his initial term as Flagler County Sheriff and was specifically advised of the wrongfulness of the conduct. I was the Finance Director then as well and specifically brought the issues to his attention then so he would act compliant with the law. Hence, I found it obviously purposeful and unethical for him to engage in the same behavior (unlawful expenses and unlawful uses of public property), when he became sheriff again. If one has already been advised of wrongful conduct and engaged in it again, and notwithstanding this prior knowledge, they do so willfully. When such an actor is a sheriff, that is corrupt.”

“I think that letter unfairly played into the discussion because there are a lot of misstatements in that letter, which we’re going to address,” Nowell said.

Much of the discussion of the ethics commission centered on the unusual nature of the settlement: throwing out some charges and accepting others is not something the commission does routinely. The advocate could recall one such instance in the past, though it predated almost all current commission members’ tenure. That gave commissioners pause.

“I don’t understand the basis for dropping counts three and count four,” Linda Robinson, who chairs the commission said.

Manfre's Ethics:
The Documents

“I just thought at this point it would be best for a cost-analysis in order to go with this stipulation,” Melody Hadley, the commission’s advocate, said.

That didn’t sit well with Commissioner Susan Maurer of Fort Lauderdale. “I just think it’s inappropriate for this body and have consistently tried to avoid what charges we move forward on and not move forward on and how we rule and what we take to DOAH based upon a cost-benefit,” Maurer said, using the acronym for the Division of Administrative Hearings. “Your terminology of the cost-benefit of the risk of being able to prove it completely at DOAH is not a standard that’s critical to me. I think we’re charged with certain duties and responsibilities by the Legislature, and that’s how I try to vote on these things. I’m not persuaded by that. I just don’t think that’s our job. If it appears more than likely that there was inappropriate conduct, then we should move forward on that and take the risk on whether it’s proven at DOAH or not.”

Commissioner Tom Freeman, a retired judge from DeBary and one of two votes dissenting from the rest of the commission, referred to his experience as judge as he spoke of the commonality of settlements. “In the criminal justice system,” he said, “the discharge of one or several criminal counts happens 99.9 percent of the time. There’ll be seven or eight charges against the defendant, what happens is he’ll plead to two out of the seven and those are accepted by every circuit judge and every county judge in Florida and the matter is resolved and they go forward. The criminal justice system would completely collapse if you had to adjudicate every single charge brought by every single prosecutor.”

Discussion then turned on particulars of the investigation’s findings and the timing of when the sheriff was told of having committed a potential violation, and what he affirmatively did about it. But even those particulars did not sway some commissioners. Commissioner Matthew Carlucci, a Jacksonville insurance agent, was concerned about the repeat nature of the violations, which would diminish claims on the sheriff’s part that he was not aware of breaking policy. (Manfre signed a general order on credit card use in January 2014.)

Sheriff Jim Manfre is facing a lawsuit from a long-time employee who claims she was forced to resign after flagging inappropriate spending on dining and entertainment. The sheriff through his attorney 'vigorously denies' the claim. (© FlaglerLive)

Sheriff Jim Manfre. (© FlaglerLive)

“I have some real credibility questions in my mind,” Mauer said, “related to whether policy existed or not, whether rational folks, publicly elected to positions, a sheriff, would not be aware that they cannot freely spend on the credit card and hope that their budget officer notifies them when they’re over their per diem. I don’t know anybody who serves in government today who doesn’t understand that you need to turn in receipts, you need to mark the itemized receipts, who you were with, what you spent it on. I mean, that occurs in government, that occurs in private practice, and it just seems to me that there was free-wheeling expenditures going on here.”

“I think most people that reach the level of becoming sheriff have common sense on what’s the appropriate use of a credit card or not, whether there’s any written guideline or not,” Carlucci said.

Barnett addressed those points directly: “If there was anything wrong with his behavior, and he believes that it could have been done better, he changed his behavior, and not only that, changed the policy in January of 2014. So again if there is brought to his attention a mistake was made, he changed the policy because it was unclear to him, and with regard to the comment about common sense, perhaps common sense should have been exercised at that point. But the lack of common sense doesn’t equate to corrupt intent under the policy. If throughout the reading or throughout the report of the investigation he believed that he was following what the complainant had advised him of the policy, so again, the biggest issue that came forward through this report or through the advocate’s recommendation is that there does not appear to be evidence in the investigation of a corrupt intent, and that’s the standard that applies in this instance.”

But repeatedly, various commissioners referred to the importance of the case because of the importance of the position. The commission’s most frequent cases deal with lesser elected officials, such as city or county commissioners or school board members.

Commissioners question the sheriff’s credibility on matters of common sense and common practices.

“Ultimately in my mind,” Commissioner Martin Ford of Vero Beach, said, “we need to do some more investigation into those two counts, because we’re not talking here about the undersheriff or a captain or lieutenant, we’re talking about the sheriff, and I think that the sheriff has a higher obligation to adhere to, and the fact that there is an undated order in the record concerns me. So I don’t think we’ve completely fulfilled our obligation to investigate the matter completely.”

Freeman ridiculed the notion of a sheriff having to be held to a higher standard than any other public official. “It’s the same standard: did they violate the ethics code?”

Commissioner Michelle Anchors, a Ft. Walton Beach attorney, joined Freeman in dissent.

None of the investigative matters from this point forward are covered by confidentiality, as was the case in matters leading up to the hearing. The reason: by agreeing to the stipulated agreement—even though the agreement was thrown out—Manfre waived all confidentiality.

“Confidentiality has been waived, so there is no confidentiality from this point forward,” Virlindia Doss, the commission’s executive director, said emphatically.

“But that has been rejected, that has not been accepted by the commission,” Barnett said.

“Once confidentiality is waived, it’s waived,” Doss said.

Doss then explained what happens next: “The commission itself doesn’t direct the investigation. What will happen is we will go back as staff and look at all the questions the commission members have, and the investigators will go back out and try to resolve all of those questions. And any ancillary questions that they see come up, so that the commission will have as full a body of knowledge to draw from as possible. But that’s something that the investigators and the staff attorneys will have to work out in the course of this. But we do look, and we go back to the tape so that we can try and make sure that we have—I always push the wrong button—so we have everything covered that we possibly can. And of course in the course of all of this you and the sheriff are able to submit whatever documentation and information you would like to submit.”

Nowell, Manfre’s local attorney, said that at this point, with all charges again in play, Manfre has not taken a position as to his responsibility or guilt regarding each. “I think he’s going to wait for what they come back with to determine whether or not he agrees or disagrees with,” Nowell said.

“The respondent may not want to arrive at those same terms in a subsequent stipulation,” Doss also noted.

The two lawyers: Linda Barnett, left, for Sheriff Manfre, and Melody Hadley for the Ethics Commission. (Florida Channel)

The two lawyers: Linda Barnett, left, for Sheriff Manfre, and Melody Hadley for the Ethics Commission. (Florida Channel)

23 Responses for “Ethics Commission Rejects Settlement With Sheriff Manfre, Reopening Case on All Charges”

  1. KB63 says:

    Finally, something that makes sense & doesn’t reek of the political stink that is Flagler County!

  2. Sherry Epley says:

    It is wonderful that this ethics committee has members from a few different counties. We are very much in need of some broader perspectives in many of our local political situations. Our current leaders are so insulated and in bed with one another in some fashion that all our community gets is reruns of the same old decision making and political back scratching.

    It is my belief that if the ethics commission contained only members from Flagler, all complaints would be dismissed immediately.

  3. IAmStillHere says:

    This is just the tip of the iceberg folks. There is more out there to be discovered. He is the worst kind of person…a hypocrite. People in glass houses should not throw stones, Jim. Remember that.

  4. Lancer says:

    This should be a lesson for all, concerning our current national direction regarding growing and all knowing, intrusive government. At the end of the day, there will be people making decisions who are given, not only a great deal of responsibility, but also a lot of power. Not to say Manfre is guilty, however, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

  5. Heading North says:

    The next step IF he is found guilty and in violation by the Commission should be the Governors office stepping in and removing Mr. Manfre from the office he never should have been elected to in the first place! Time to take out the trash folks!
    And, as always, good luck to the people of Flagler County from someone who has been there, worked and lived there, got smart and left!!

  6. confidential says:

    Absolutely correct Dogman! Pam needs to go and do the real work she was elected to do.

  7. lena Marshal says:

    poor Sheriff Manfre, I hope they are not too hard on him!

  8. Marion Hood says:

    This is a much better reporting job that what I read in the News Journal, but that aside, if Manfre admits to misuse of government property didn’t he do something illegal? If he charged meals for non-employees isn’t that theft? Seems he should be facing something more than ethics charges.

  9. Gia says:

    I did not vote for that corrupted bastard cop.

    • Ray Thorne says:

      He’s not now, nor was he ever, a cop. He’s never been to a law enforcement academy. He’s an elected official who continues to stain the uniform by wearing it never having done the job. Others who have been elected who were never law enforcement correctly wear suit and tie.

  10. Jason Stryker says:

    I believe that the Ethics Commission made a good decision here. We are talking about the highest law enforcement position in the country. Manfre is acting exactly like the attorney that he is. Finally he will be exposed. My Prediction….Flagler County do not be surprised when this happens….the chief of Police in Bunnell is going to release a story on how Manfre has been trying to undermine the strength of the Bunnell PD so that the FCSO can take over Bunnell…when that story is breaking Hoffman will be finishing the FBI academy at tax payers expense and Hoffman and Staly will resign citing the corruption of the sheriffs office under Manfre. Then Staly will run for sheriff in 2016 bringing Hoffman and the Bunnell Cheif under his wing. You read it first here. ….

  11. YELLOWBEARD says:

    Looks like “IAmStillHere” may be referring to the plan of mutiny the Deputies are planning to layout to the Governors office.

  12. Mark Richter Jr says:

    So the lawyer/sheriff (Manfre) that was counsel for our commissioner’s bankruptcy case (a commissioner that has been convicted and accused of multiple ethics violations) and his lawyer also our sheriff is accused of stealing and misappropriating funds? I can’t imagine how far this rabbit hole goes. Time we take back our county from these corrupt men. Oh wait we just elected them back into office……………..

  13. Ray Thorne says:

    I’m glad to see the Commission decided to give a second thought to the complaints. I’ve pretty much had enough of reading about his wrongdoings for which his excuses are of a child’s caliber.

  14. Anonymous says:

    at first I thought maybe the sheriffs office is just uner heavy fire but still doing a good job-but after just being told that I cant take pictures of a car accident,from a public sidewalk with my phone unless not involved in the wreck–by a local deputy–ive changed my outlook….

    ethics violations in local county gov–underhanded spending by the sheriff-and now gross violations of rights

    this sheriff office needs a total reconfiguring

    • FlaglerLive says:

      It is disturbing to hear that a resident was told that he or she could not take pictures of a wreck from a public sidewalk, as that would be outright law-breaking on the Sheriff’s Office part. Please contact FlaglerLive at and let us know the circumstances of the incident. Thanks.

  15. Outsider says:

    It seems apparent that he willfully violated the trust he was, for some strange reason, given a second time. In light of the numerous lives and careers he ruined by succumbing to his childish need for retribution, he should be afforded the same level of leniency he gave the people he fired: none. This man is an embarrassment to the county, and, I would hope, law enforcement in general. Throw his ass out and give the former employees their jobs back with pay. That is the right thing to do.

  16. Enlightened says:

    Elected officials should be held to a higher standard. Especially, a Sheriff! They are the ones upholding the law. If they break it they have no credibility. It didn’t take long for Manfre to lose his. And he forced out and fired others for the same or less. I say get rid of him and hire back ALL those who were terminated. We need to get back the positive attitude of the agency. All is not lost. I believe in karma. It will bite you in the butt, Jim. That’s what you get for ruining people’s lives!

  17. Citizen says:

    the butt you kick on the way up, you usually have to kiss on the way down. Something to think about when you make decisions that turn peoples lives upside down and rob them from completing their career. Will the law degree Manfre has help him out of this? Are we the tax payers paying for his defense?

  18. Buddy Negron says:

    Where there’s smoke, there’s fire! Look, Manfre didn’t dupe the commission with his “I don’t remember” BS and they’re not buying! Too many occasions in question and still too many questions remain unanswered. I think the ethics board should send their findings over to the SAO for criminal prosecution. After all, it is clear by his statements initially, and his statements now in his plea attempt, that he lied under oath. If they prosecute him for his lying under oath (and we have the proof now), then he can be permanently removed from office, once and for all. Make sense??

  19. John says:

    Time to RECALL him from office. Another liberal wasting the taxpayer’s money!

  20. Ray Thorne says:

    The position of Sheriff is a great responsibility and it seems we gave that responsibility to someone too immature to handle it.. If he violated the law as the commission suggests, he should step down or be removed period!!

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