Flagler County Commission Chairman Frank Meeker this morning scarcely hid his contempt for two new ethics violation charges filed against fellow-Commissioner Barbara Revels and County Attorney Al Hadeed.
“I find the whole thing ridiculous and a complete waste of our time and efforts in the time that we’re dedicating to operating the county,” Meeker said of the complaints recently filed by John Ruffalo, a founding member of the local political group known as the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies. Reagan assemblies members—acting in their own capacity as individuals rather than as representatives of the group—have made suing the county or filing ethics charges against county officials an annual ritual going back to 2013.
With one exception, the actions have not been upheld, serving only to damage the reputations of their targets, though in one case the county successfully countered a frivolous lawsuit by winning a court judgment that required the filers to pay the county’s legal costs. The exception to the frivolity, so far, is an ethics commission judgment that went against Revels in January. In that case, the commission concluded she had violated ethics laws by not disclosing a business relationship and by taking an active part in votes that led to the county’s acquisition of the old Memorial hospital in Bunnell. Revels was supposed to have filed a conflict of interest form instead. The commission fined her $2,500.
The newest ethics filing against Revels adds up to 35 pages and, as with the 188-page filing against Hadeed, “include a multiplicity of charges.” In Revels’s case, the charges again go to her voting record, raising conflicts of interest issues.
All commissioners and the county attorney were the target last year of ethics commission and elections commission charges by former Supervisor of Elections Kimberle Weeks and Mark Richter, a former member of the Reagan group. Several of those complaints have been dismissed. Some are still pending.
After calling both of the most recent complaints “disgusting,” Meeker went on, referring to the one against Hadeed: “This one is just as annoying to me. It’s political payback that goes back years and includes current political attacks and I don’t like it.”
Ruffalo did not return a call or reply to a request for comment, placed through Reagan Assemblies President Michael McElroy. McElroy said the Ruffalo ethics charges were not discussed at a Reagan assemblies meeting, nor filed under the auspices of the Reagan group. “I’m a Kiwanis,” McElroy said. “Everything I do isn’t in the name of the K and everything some of our Ronald Reagan members do isn’t in the name of the organization.”
But McElroy said of this morning’s meeting: “There’s some bad blood between Frank and some of the Ronald Reagan members. He considers it his mission to discredit us, and some of our members consider it their mission to identify where Frank and some of his fellow-members have gone wrong.”
Hadeed did not make the ethics complaints public, though he did email them to all five county commission members over the weekend, along with a cover memo explaining the votes he asked of them at this morning’s meeting.
Ethics commission complaints are confidential from the ethics commission’s end until the matter is made public through ethics commission action, though nothing keeps those who file the complaints from making them public. In this case, there is some question as to whether the complaints can remain confidential following this morning’s votes by the county commission. Those votes may have waived confidentiality. FlaglerLive has requested that the county produce the complaints in light of this morning’s votes.
“I am considering that the BCC’s vote to refer the matter to the insurer, making it a county defense by way of its insurer as to those allegations involving votes and County Attorney services, makes the complaints available to the public,” Hadeed said in an email to FlaglerLive, referring to the Board of County Commissioners. “ The vote in other words served as a waiver of the confidentiality of those particular documents. “ But, he said, he was seeking counsel first from the General Counsel at the Florida Department of State to ensure that confidentiality has, in fact, been waived by the votes.
Hadeed was seeking the votes to enable the county to seek out coverage for the legal defense from its insurer. “The county does have coverage for public officers’ liability to provide the defense of these kinds of charges to pay for counsel, pay for legal expenses,” Hadeed said. “Of course we have to assist in that effort internally.”
The commission voted unanimously to do just that, with one vote on the Revels matter and another on the Hadeed matter. It voted the same way last year to address the slew of ethics and elections complaints filed against commissioners and Hadeed. Revels today abstained from the vote regarding the ethics complaint against her, citing a conflict of interest.
“Because the charges are so many and are made in a ‘scattershot’ manner,” Hadeed wrote in his memo to commissioners on July 4, “I hesitate to provide a summary, either written or verbal, that can be construed as not complete.” He specified this much: “Here, the complaints generally go to the voting of Commissioner Revels as a Board member and to the legal advice and activity that I perform as County Attorney.”
The commission voted as it did—to seek out the insurer’s judgment on whether it will provide coverage or not—because it considers the matter to relate directly to Revels’s and Hadeed’s official duties. The insurance company may decline to provide coverage, leaving it up to the commission to decide whether it wishes to underwrite the costs of legal defense, or to require Revels and Hadeed to defend themselves at their own expense. (Flagler Sheriff Jim Manfre is defending himself in an ongoing ethics matter against him through the Sheriff’s Office’s self-insurance fund, whose premiums come out of the taxpayer-supported general fund.)
But in the county’s case, again, costs may possibly be recovered. “If the Ethics Commission dismisses the allegations,” Hadeed wrote, “a hearing can be held to determine if the complainant should be responsible to pay attorney’s fees incurred by the County and its officials. The Ethics Commission has to find that the complaint was made with a malicious intent to injure the official’s reputation. Further, it must find that the complainant knew the material allegations in the complaint were false or made the allegations about the official with reckless disregard for the truth.”
“I read extensively both Ms. Revels and County Attorney Al Hadeed,” Commissioner George Hanns said. “The allegations made in reference to years ago about said documentation and auditing etc. etc., I was a commissioner at that time, and I would like to say to this board that I am available as a witness to those proceedings, or allegations.”