In an extraordinary but not unexpected move, the Flagler County Commission today approved County Attorney Al Hadeed’s request to pursue John Ruffalo and Dennis McDonald for attorneys’ fees resulting from the two men’s ethics commission complaints against Hadeed and Commissioner Nate McLaughlin. Seeking attorneys’ fees in a legal case is not unusual. Seeking them in an ethics case is.
Ruffalo and McDonald are ranking members of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies, the extremist group that’s vowed to upend the local government establishment. They were also behind a lawsuit against the county that a judge tossed out, and in which Hadeed sought fees as well.
Hadeed used legally explicit and brutal language to describe Ruffalo’s and McDonald’s tactics, launching words that included “libel,” “blaspheming,” “smears” and “false light” to describe how they had crafted their complaints—not to make legitimate allegations against government, but to “knowingly” peddle lies intended to hurt their targets for political gain. (McLaughlin added “malicious” to the list.) Hadeed, usually restrained and on the dry side when dealing with legal matters, today turned on the sort of verbal skills a lawyer usually reserves for opening and closing arguments. Hadeed did both in one swoop in an hour-long presentation to the commission, securing its endorsement to pursue Ruffalo and McDonald.
Monday’s action by the county commission—oddly, not in a formal vote, but in what amounted to a vote—mirrors one Palm Coast took against McDonald to recover fees in a failed lawsuit earlier this year. It signals the county’s intention to counter fire with fire, in so far as it can do so without crossing a risky line that its opponents could, in turn, exploit by painting the government as vindictive or undemocratic.
Hadeed sought to clarify that line, with backing from state law, and assure commissioners that they were not crossing it, though whether they were or not is not a matter of demonstrable evidence: it required commissioners’ interpretation, guided by Hadeed’s analysis. In other words, the decision was not in small part subjective. It also spoke to each commissioner’s desire to hit back at an organization (and more specifically, at its chief operatives) that has frustrated and infuriated each commissioner in turn, while costing them considerable sums to foot the bills of their legal defense. For all that, their decision was not an obvious one.
Acknowledging as much, Hadeed described the decision as a “significant” step he was asking the commission to take. He read commissioners the law. It provides for the recovery of fees in certain cases, even cases involving ethics commission complaints. But the county would have to show that the filing of the complaints was done maliciously, with intent to harm the reputation of the people against whom the complaints were filed.
That’s what Hadeed contends McDonald and Ruffalo did.
“Ordinarily,” Hadeed said, “there are many times when citizens complain about some action of the government. That’s part of our American way. It is certainly appropriate and part of pour governmental system, our democracy, that people are allowed to air their grievances. I fully respect that. I have been involved with—I could probably say, a thousand times when there are disputes with decisions that you make. However they’re voiced, whether they’re here at the rostrum or in some other forum. We don’t seek to penalize citizens for their disagreement. We don’t do that. That’s our American way. They’re allowed to vent, so to speak.”
But there are exceptions. “There’s been only one time that I have before this ever asked to pursue fees, and that was in the Watchdogs case,” Hadeed said.
That was the lawsuit filed in circuit court by the obscure group called the Palm Coast Watchdogs, disputing the legalities of the county’s $1.23 million purchase two years ago of the old Memorial Hospital, which is re-opening this week as the sheriff’s Operations Center. A judge tossed out the suit, calling it frivolous. Hadeed sought to recover fees. One person, Dan Bozza, was listed as a managing member, but the same Dennis McDonald and John Ruffalo were involved in the case, and had discussions with Hadeed about it. (“They raised a pot-pourri of issues with me,” Hadeed recalled of that meeting.)
The carbon-copy presence of McDonald and Ruffalo behind the Watchdog case would be replicated in subsequent filings against county officials. The Watchdogs lawyer had indicated that his clients intended to file a new suit after the original case was tossed out. They didn’t, strictly speaking. But they filed the ethics complaints.
“So that is the first time in my long, long history with the county, that I’ve ever had to do that to somebody that pursued and aired their grievance, so to speak,” Hadeed said. “This is also a time that is appropriate to pursue that kind of approach, where we seek fees against citizens who have gone way beyond the pale in pursuing their grievances.”
In the more recent situation, Hadeed said, the complaints filed at the ethics commission were filed just before the July 4 holiday weekend. By then, there’d been ample evidence that showed the allegations McDonald’s complaint made against Commissioner Nate McLaughlin and Ruffalo’s complaint made against Hadeed—in filings totaling some 250 pages between them—were without merit, according to the attorney.
Hadeed laid out his case. Five months earlier, Hadeed had made public his answer to a Florida Bar complaint filed against him by then-Supervisor of Elections Kimbere Weeks, where many of the claims Ruffalo and McDonald reprised had been refuted. In April 2015, also in advance of the Ruffalo and McDonald complaints, the elections commission rejected a trio of complaints against Commissioners George Hanns, Charlie Ericksen and Barbara Revels, as being without merit.
Hadeed wanted to make the point to build his case that the complaints were nevertheless filed. “In other words,” Hadeed said, “a reasonable person would be totally on notice of what the facts were and what the law was with respect to all these things, because they were detailed in the things that I previously mentioned that occurred prior to these complaints.”
Ever the attorney, Hadeed then summarized the McDonald and Ruffalo complaints almost point by point to the commission. He underlined the “knowingly false” claim by McDonald that McLaughlin used county funds in any way to defend an elections commission matter (as opposed to an ethics commission matter), or that the matter was somehow not on the commission agenda when Hadeed discussed it with the commission last year.
“So, these allegations were knowingly, falsely made. That is why I would recommend that we pursue fees against Mr. Dennis McDonald,” Hadeed said.
He then put it explicitly: he asked for the commission’s authorization to pursue fees against McDonald for “making these allegations.”
Commissioners didn’t take a formal vote. Commission Chairman Frank meeker didn’t think it necessary. But four of them spoke their assent to the request, and McLaughlin indicated it with a nod.
Hadeed then turned to the Ruffalo compliant, a more extensive but less disciplined set of claims against Hadeed, who summarized them. At one point, alluding to one of the Ruffalo allegations about the purchase of the old hospital Ruffalo’s claim that commissioners were being illegally “polled” about their views ahead of the votes, Hadeed obliquely but unmistakably ridiculed Ruffalo himself as he summed up the numerous discussions on the purchase taking place at the time: “It would take an idiot not to know how you were going to vote,” Hadeed said. (That was only partly true: much of the administration’s angling toward the old hospital site had taken place out of public view or discussions, though once the plan was revealed, commissioners did not hide their intentions one way or the other, nor their occasional skepticism.)
Hadeed was as unsparing in his description of Ruffalo’s tactics as he had been with McDonald’s, recalling how a “libel” of Commissioner Revels had been repeated even when shown to have been false. Hadeed went on, deconstructing the Ruffalo document as a “knowingly false” set of accusations that not only do not stand up to scrutiny, but that collapse after a simple examination of the public record.
“So there is in my view not any merit to any of the allegations made,” Hadeed said, “that they were knowingly false, because every one of these things, the public record could have been examined, yet, the assertions were made and they were designed to create a false impression of the board member—while I’m the respondent on the complaint, one of the reasons it was 200 pages, it also blasphemed you within it. The complaint might as well have been against me, you, you, you, you and you, all of you. It might as well have named us all. They just did it in one thing and just named me as the person. So all of the purpose in the assertion of these complaints is to put the board in a false light, myself in a false light, to libel and essentially smear our reputations.”
He had one final shot at McDonald and Ruffalo, accusing them of tagging the complaints to their recipients’ home addresses, in hopes, Hadeed surmised, of upsetting families and under the false assumption that the recipients would not then have a chance to use county resources to defend themselves.
The commission’s endorsement of Hadeed’s case against Ruffalo was as unanimous as it had been in McDonald’s case.