The Florida Commission on Ethics last week ordered Flagler County School Board Chairman Colleen Conklin to pay a $1,500 fine over a year-old matter that started as a minor failure to mail in a document, and began as a $25 fine. Conklin was never accused of wrongdoing, but of missing a deadline for paperwork and failing to properly follow through. The paperwork itself was never in question.
Public officials are required to file a financial disclosure form Called Form 6 annually with the Florida Ethics Commission, and file it by July 1. Conklin filled out her form and had her husband, Christopher, mail it. He forgot. “The envelope was misplaced in my car and I failed to send it in,” he said in an affidavit to the commission. A month later Colleen Conklin asked him about it. He thought he had mailed it, only to discover it in his truck. Colleen sent the form in on Sept. 2 by regular mail.
That happened to be the last day of the grace period. So Conklin—who was first elected to the school board in 2000 and has routinely sent in her disclosures—did not send in a check to cover what fine would have accrued (at $25 a day for late forms). She thought the commission had received the form.
It had not. She was automatically fined $1,500. Conklin appealed. On Dec. 11, the commission denied the appeal.
“Unfortunately, there was a family miscommunication and the commission found it didn’t meet the definition necessary to waive the fine,” Conklin said in a text Thursday afternoon, just before traveling. “The bottom line is that it’s my responsibility. I feel confident it won’t happen in the future.” Conklin had been convinced that the fine had been dismissed until a reporter informed her otherwise.
Asked about the appeal in late November, when it first appeared on the ethics commission’s agenda, Conklin said at the time: “They said they didn’t receive my report and wanted to charge me a fine. Meanwhile their own documents conflicted their timeline. We appealed the fine and it was dismissed.” Kristy Gavin, the school board’s attorney, had told her that the fine had been dismissed, Conklin said.
What started as a $25 fine turned into the maximum allowable under the circumstances.
The ethics commission’s version of events, as related in its Dec. 11 order, states that after not receiving the 2013 Form 6, it mailed Conklin a delinquency notice on July 31. The certified piece of mail was signed for “by a person who used only initials,” the commission found. The commission then sent a reminder postcard on Aug. 14, then a Sept. 4 letter, informing Conklin that the $25-a-day fines had begun to accrue. Conklin called the commission on Oct. 10 (it’s not clear why she did not call before)to let the commission know of the initial form being lost, and was toild by a commission staffer to send in a form as soon as possible to stop the fines’ accrual.
The next action on the commission’s timeline was Dec. 1, when it informed Conklin that a fine of $1,500 had automatically been assessed, along with a notice of a right to appeal. The commission mailed a second copy of the notice on March 25. Conklin filed her appeal on April 22. Three weeks later a commission staffer informed Conklin by phone that the appeal is not complete until she sends in an original Form 6, which the commission had apparently yet to receive. The commission placed a similar call in June, and again informed Gavin on June 19. Conklin sent in the required form on June 19. The appeal consisted of an explanation of the original flub, and Conklin’s belief that she had met the deadline, since she’d heard nothing from the commission until March 25.
The disparity between the commission’s notices and what Conklin received is not explained in the documentation.
Under the law, the commission order reads, the commission can waive a fine only “based upon unusual circumstances surrounding the failure to file on the designated due date,” with rare circumstances being defined by law as “uncommon, rare or sudden events over which the reporting individual has no control and which directly result in the failure to act in accordance with the filing requirement. Circumstances which allow for time in which to take those steps necessary to assure compliance with the filing requirement shall be deemed not to constitute unusual circumstances.”
The commission found that Conklin filed the form a year after the deadline, ruling that Conklin’s explanation did not amount to unusual circumstances. “The mailing mix-up described by [Conklin] and [Conklin’s] husband is understandable,” the order concludes, but Conklin “had time to cure this deficiency, and did not do so until she received three additional calls from the commission, advising that the filing remained delinquent.”
There is nothing remarkable in Conklin’s disclosure—a $140,000 mortgage for her Flagler Beach home, a second, $70,000 mortgage, a $5,500 revolving loan, and some $300,000 in assets (mostly retirement funds and her home). Her net worth is listed as $91,000.
Conklin has until January 11 to make the payment.