On Monday it was County Commissioner George Hanns who saw a dark cloud lift from his recent service on the county canvassing board, when a state Division of Elections opinion deemed his removal from that board improper. Today, it was County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin’s and County Attorney Al Hadeed’s turn to see clouds from the same storm system lift as the Florida Commission on Ethics ruled that complaints against them lack “legal sufficiency.”
The complaints against Hadeed and McLaughlin were filed by John Ruffalo and Dennis McDonald, respectively. Both were filed in June. Both filers are members of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies, the radical-right organization devoted to upending the local governing establishment where and when it can.
The ethics commission made the ruling in executive session on Oct. 23.
“The commission’s review was limited to questions of jurisdiction of the commission and of the adequacy of the details of the complaint,” the order concerning each of the complaints reads. It calls the Ruffalo complaint “conclusory, not factually indicative of a possible violation” of the ethics code.
“It is evident that matters of the complaint are of great importance to the complainant and others, and that the complainant has devoted substantial time and energy into its filing,” the order regarding McDonald’s complaint reads. “However, in sum, while the complaint raises matters which may be addressable in other forums (e.g., the courts, the Board of County Commissioners, the ballot box), it is not indicative of a positive violation of the Code of Ethics” by McLaughlin.
McDonald’s and Ruffalo’s complaints are part of some 19 complaints or lawsuits filed in one form or another against county commissioners and Hadeed since last year by the same cluster of people, who also include Mark Richter, the once and current county commission candidate (and peddler in obscene emails), and Kimberle Weeks, the former supervisor of elections, now under 12 felony indictments for allegedly illegally recording many of the people she filed complaints against.
The complaints, more than half of which have been dismissed, were filed at the ethics commission, the Division of Elections and the Florida Bar, as well as in circuit court, where a lawsuit against county government was declared frivolous. McDonald filed a lawsuit against Palm Coast, too, two years ago, and saw that lawsuit declared frivolous earlier this year. Palm Coast charged back, asking a judge to order McDonald and his attorney to reimburse legal fees. The city won.
Hadeed said today he is working on a similar legal invoice.
“It will be my intention to ask of county commissioners at the appropriate time to pursue attorney fee awards against the individuals who have filed these complaints,” Hadeed said. “I am only referring to the complaints related to actions that have been challenged by the commissioners in their capacities as county commissioners, and not with respect to some of the complaints that have been filed relating to their activities in their campaigns.” Hadeed noted that the fees will include those run up in the work regarding the ethics complaints against him as county attorney.
In April, the Florida Elections Commission threw out charges Weeks brought against Commissioners Barbara Revels, Hanns and Charlie Ericksen, calling the charges speculative. Wednesday’s findings are the first to toss out charges filed in much the same vein, and at times in the same writing and with the same evidence, at the ethics commission.
The Ruffalo complaint against Hadeed claimed that the county attorney improperly discussed the numerous complaints pending against commissioners when Hadeed outlined the matter at a public meeting in December 2014, and that Hadeed somehow had something to gain from the maneuver. Much of Ruffalo’s argument—which the commission did not buy—was circular, meaning that it did not cite specific wrongdoing that somehow would benefit Hadeed’s pocket personally or financially (one of the essential criteria for a valid ethics complaint). Rather, it cited a number of instances that took place at commission meetings or were reported in local media to make allegations or editorial statements that did not quite amount to a complaint in the formal, legal sense, so much as the sort of complaints one may hear at the water cooler or at a bar: a lot of circumstantial speculation and attempts at connecting ill-defined dots.
McDonald’s complaint against McLaughlin was less of a scattershot approach and listed only 32 items in comparison. Like the Ruffalo complaint, it relies on other complaints to build a case, refers to some of the same issues in the Ruffalo complaint, and to an elections commission matter that ended with McLaughlin paying a $250 fine over a minor violation involving the disclaimer wording on campaign material. Its focus is a claim that McLaughlin improperly used the county’s resources to defend himself in an election matter, though the county stresses that when Hadeed spoke to the commission about the numerous ethics complaints against them, the county’s defense was in play only regarding conduct involving county business—not election matters.
“Obviously you’re always pleased when you find out you weren’t in the wrong,” McLaughlin said today, noting that he’ll be supportive of a measure to regain some of the attorneys’ fees the county ran up while battling the complaints. “Legitimate complaints are legitimate complaints, none of us is perfect,” he said. “But when it gets to the point where it’s just piling on, taking a complaint and rewording it so it sounds like a new complaint, that’s a waste of taxpayer dollars, and a lot of taxpayer dollars has been wasted on frivolity here.”
For Hadeed, it’s been a challenge just keeping up with the cascade of complaints that his office has had to manage. “It’s sometimes very difficult for me to recall specifically who filed which complaint because the approach in all the complaints is very similar,” Hadeed said, “and there is commonality in the way that they argue, the way they state the complaint, so there’s no distinct author. So it’s very hard when somebody says ‘oh, the complaint that was filed with the elections commission in 2015,’ I have to really think hard when I don’t have the files or access to the documents in my computer who is the author on that.”
McDonald reacted with humor Wednesday afternoon, after being informed of the ethics commission’s decision. “Could be worse, I could be Travis Hutson and not have a district anymore,” McDonald said, a reference to a redistricting proposal floated in the Florida Senate that would shear off Flagler from Hutson’s district and give it to Dorothy Huykill’s Volusia-dominated district. McDonald ran against Hutson last year.
“There is no next move on it,” McDonald said. “If the ethics commission decided that, it’s either one or two reasons, it’s either a) they don’t agree with me or b) I didn’t submit the right information, but I gave it a good shot.” He added: “Maybe they did not understand my point, and that happens.”
Ruffalo did not return calls.