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Ethics Commission Rejects Flagler’s Pitch to Recover Fees from Frivolous Complaints

| January 22, 2016

al hadeed dennis mcdonald

This round goes against Flagler County. Dennis McDonald, left, and County Attorney Al Hadeed. (© FlaglerLive)

Jan. 22 Update: The Florida Ethics Commission, meeting in Tallahassee today, unanimously rejected Flagler County’s attempt to recoup attorneys’ fees in case involving complaints against County Attorney Al Hadeed and County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin. The ethics commission adopted its counsel’s recommendations in each case, which found no grounds to award fees even though the complaints filed against Hadeed and McLaughlin were deemed to have been groundless. The county argued that fees were due because the complaints had been filed with knowing falsehoods, and were intended to harm the reputations of county officials.

The previous story with all relevant documents is below.

Jan. 7–Flagler County government will almost certainly not get reimbursed for the money it spent fighting frivolous ethics complaints filed against County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin and County Attorney Al Hadeed last year.  The Florida Ethics Commission’s counsel is recommending against reimbursement in a Dec. 30 memo and a proposed order that the full ethics commission board will act upon at its January 22 meeting. The board rarely counters its counsel’s recommendations.

The county intends to dispute the recommendation on Jan. 22, Hadeed said, noting that the ethics commission staff routinely recommends against fee recovery.

The commission’s decision, should it follow its staff’s recommendations, would be a setback for the county, but on more symbolic than substantial grounds. The county had not even filed actual dollar amounts to be reimbursed. Its intention was more pre-emptive than financial: because it was facing a slew of such frivolous complaints, it was hoping to dissuade complainants from filing them in the future. The order might not embolden complainants to file more such complaints, but, as it doesn’t cost complainants a dime to file them, it may not discourage them to continue doing so, either.

The original ethics commission complaints were filed by Dennis McDonald against Nate McLaughlin, and by John Ruffalo against Hadeed. McDonald and Ruffalo are members of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies and last year were part of a small group of individuals who filed some 19 complaints against county officials with the ethics and elections commissions, through the court system and the state attorney’s office. About half of those have been dismissed so far. Attorney Mark Herron,  representing the county—through documents bearing the imprint of Hadeed’s work and reasoning—argued to the ethics commission that the complaints filed against Hadeed and McLaughlin had been willfully intended to harm reputations, and that they were based on knowingly and recklessly false accusations.

State law allows those targeted by such complaints, when found frivolous, to recover attorneys’ fees. But the law “sets a very high bar for the recovery of fees,” the order states. Hadeed and McLaughlin did not sufficiently prove what they’d claimed against the complainants.

“We find that the petition is not sufficient as to allegations concerning the element that a complaint must be made with a malicious intent to injure one’s reputation,” the proposed order regarding the Hadeed matter states. “Rather than substantively alleging such an intent based on contents of the complaint material to a violation of the Code of Ethics, the petition chronicles several filings, in forums in addition to the Commission on Ethics, made by persons other than Ruffalo or made by Ruffalo in another ethics complaint, attempting thereby to characterize the ethics complaint as a malicious filing.”

Ironically, the ethics commission’s wording against the Hadeed petition echoes the wording it used to dismiss the Ruffalo and McDonald complaints. In those orders, the commission had found both complainants to have relied more on allegations and opinions that substantiated fact.

“As to required petition contents that the person filing the complaint knew that the allegations made about the official were false or made the allegations about the official with reckless disregard for the truth,” the proposed order regarding the Hadeed case goes on, “and that the false or reckless allegations were material, we also find the allegation to be lacking.”

Ruffalo, for his part, found the attempt to recover fees to be another reason to complain against the county attorney. “The allegation against me to forced me to pay attorney fees is, in fact, an attempt to intimidate me and others from filing complaints against persons who have done harm to our county,” Ruffalo said in a Dec. 15 letter to the ethics commission (slyly slipping, again, a false accusation of wrongdoing against county officials along the way). “Malicious intimidation should be yet another form of wrongdoing charged against Albert Hadeed.” He goes on to dispute any claim that malice played a role in his complaints, as opposed to his “civic duty” to “bring the substantiated facts previously provided into the sunlight in attempt (sic.) to make our county better.” (The ethics commission had, in fact, found Ruffalo’s facts to have been unsubstantiated.)

The proposed order regarding the McLaughlin matter hews closely to that of the Hadeed matter, citing the same laws and repeating the same reasoning to justify the dismissal of the petition for fees: “We find that the petition is not sufficient as to allegations concerning the element that a complaint must be made with a malicious intent to injure one’s reputation,” the proposed order states.

As in Ruffalo’s case, McDonald was afforded the chance to file a letter to the commission—just as all parties involved will be afforded the chance to appear before the commission in Tallahassee at the Jan. 22 meeting. Ruffalo’s letter was half a page long. McDonald’s was six pages long of single-spaced narratives. He rejects assertions that he is part of any “cohorts” of complainants, then reasserts previous claims of lack of professionalism on Hadeed’s part and goes on to a refutation of many of the points made in the petition to recover fees while restating many of his initial claims against McLaughlin.

McDonald concludes by claiming, in turn, that the county is at fault for smearing his reputation rather than the other way around. “If you were to review the list of the news releases from Flagler County’s information officer on this matter,” McDonald concludes near the end of his letter, referring to his claim that McLaughling “polled” other commissioners regarding a county issue, “it is extensive and abusive. I believe the malice in this process is being practiced by Flagler County at Mr. Hadeed’s direction.”

Hadeed called McDonald’s claim “absolutely ridiculous and unfounded” in a brief interview today. “We have been responding to his assertion. We haven’t filed anything against Mr. McDonald whatsoever—this being the only thing we filed only because the charges brought were knowingly false. He had a public record to show that the assertions he made were false.” The county merely availed itself of the statutory right to recover fees in such circumstances, Hadeed said. “We believe they were maliciously brought simply by reason the text of his allegations.”

Hadeed added: “I have not received any instructions from anyone that would even suggest that his proposition is true. Nobody has told me to go after him or anything of that sort. We just followed all the procedures. Everything we have done with respect to the multiple proceedings, almost two dozen of them, have been very professional, we have cooperated with all the agencies,” while McDonald and Ruffalo have “flooded us with public record requests which we have very thoroughly responded to. So we haven’t been lobbing anything. They have been lobbing at us.”

The county hasn’t been entirely unsuccessful in its attempts to recover money after the filing of frivolous suits: Last March a circuit judge ordered the Palm Coast “Watchdogs” and their attorney–who were also either cousins or closer relatives of the Ronald Reagan Assemblies–to reimburse the county $3,100 in fees after a frivolous suit was thrown out. Palm Coast government was able to recover a more substantial sum from McDonald after his frivolous suit against the city was tossed.

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14 Responses for “Ethics Commission Rejects Flagler’s Pitch to Recover Fees from Frivolous Complaints”

  1. layla says:

    It would set a very bad precedent to allow counties to sue for reimbursement of fees and silence the people, keeping them from the complaint process altogether. The voice of the people must never be silenced by government.

  2. confidential says:

    Slapp suits are forbidden in Florida because are intended to silence the citizens by statute 768.295 Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) prohibited.—
    Since when our freedom of speech is denied by the FCBOCC? We have the right to question our government actions and whoever has thin skin needs not to run for office and has no business working in government administrations.
    Also why is that our citizens watchdogs have to be always associated with any given party affiliation? We should not care about that when they exercise their free speech and inquiries. Would be the same as judging any man’s prayer depending which religion he professes!
    The county needs to stop wasting our taxes in legal fees defending “the county attorney and the two commissioners” What are they afraid off? Maybe because the people caught them in lies?
    After all the frivolous suit against Palm Coast was not so frivolous as where are the trees Dennis fought for now …”gone”! Paradise destroyed to give way to a maze parking lot so labyrinthine and crowded and almost impossible to navigate. All for the sake of the greedy developer! Paradise was and Dennis McDonald bravely fought to preserve it for us all. Look what we got now! My appreciation to McDonald and Ruffalo. Our local government need to stop us when we question their actions!

  3. tulip says:

    If a person or persons files a proven frivolous suit, then the ones that were sued should MOST DEFINATELY be reimbursed by the complainant. If it is proven not to be frivolous, then the ones that were sued should not be reimbursed.

    Perhaps if people who were filing frivolous lawsuits suits over and over again might think many times before doing it as it could cost them big money. Also any lawyer that takes on a lawsuit knowing it’s frivolous, should really pay big time, as they know all the legalities.

  4. tulip says:

    To LAYLA —You wrote that “the voice of the people must never be silenced by government”
    However, that doesn’t mean that people should be allowed to yell FIRE! in a movie theater, or elsewhere, where there isn’t a fire, and get away with it.

  5. layla says:

    Tulip, I could not agree with you more. However, many in this town down believe this was a frivolous complaint, as evidenced by Confidential’s remarks. Personally, I agree with him/her in this case.

    Citizens have the right to hold government accountable.

  6. layla says:

    Excuse me, meant to say WAS NOT a frivolous complaint. Sorry! Not a great typist, I am afraid!

  7. YankeeExPat says:

    “McDonald a members of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies.”

    Even though I will need to take a Shower and Gargle quite a few times after I admit it, …………..Here we go………….I need to admit…………..I think Mr. McDonald’s suit was true and viable!

    The appearance of the rehabbed Shopping center is reminiscent of a Corrections facility. Yes, the tree canopy is gone to be replaced with sickly looking string bean like trees. Add to that the entrance to no-where in front of the site and it all comes off as Half-Assed. I would like to know, what Genius came to the conclusion that removing (2) two left hand turns improves traffic flow.

    There I said it…….Now I need to go Winn-Dixie and buy more Lifebuoy soap.

  8. confidential says:

    The FCBOCC has been always a pathetic joke worsen by the county managers they picked thru the years. Every commissioner I voted turned upside down like a hot cake an totally acted against what he/she promised in their campaign.
    It really shocks me their audacity and favoritism when attacking some of the constitutional officers elected by big margins by the people of this county when they do not abide by these commissioners ambitions and desires.
    Few days ago when I saw the current SOE full color calendar they allowed her to publish on the tax payers dime piled up in the Taj Mahal reminded me when they attacked in 2004 for political reasons then Sheriff Manfre for “his” calendar and FCBOCC said because he did it in an election year. That scandal were BOCC then even spend our taxes in legal fees against Manfre then reassured he lost his re-election. So how come they are mute now about the one made in an election year 2016 by the current SOE Kaiti Lenhart where her name is conspicuously displayed in the front of it, for every month reminder as she is running for re-election? Maybe she could afford that unneeded calendar in our taxpayers dime because quietly the FCBOCC increased her requested budget by about $100,000 this year? A real favoritism not afforded ever to her predecessor SOE Kim Weeks that was witch hunted for just asking an increased budget of about $23,000 as I recall in 2013 and they also added an intensive micromanaging and further attacks that promoted her resignation to the satisfaction of the BOCC and its manager. How much the Lenhart calendar cost to the tax payers..? Because that was BOCC question in 2004 as well.
    I am glad to see that new candidates are filing to run for the BOCC like Flagler Beach resident Mr. Jason France a Navy Veteran for District 3, we need a young candidate to fight for fairness and respect to the good constitutional officers elected by “the people”. I expect Mr. France also will run in a platform of more county government transparency, promote less waste by stop county commissioners voting to buy derelict real state owned by their bankers, lawyers, developers buddies, stop Slapp suits against the residents taxpayers and maybe will lobby to rid us of manager Coffey and keep county attorney at bay or else. All mentioned above can be found going back to 2004 old news editorials and also on the county records.

  9. says:

    If the government is not allowed to recover we will continue to see our taxes wasted defending frivolous lawsuits by the RRR and its minions.

    We might have lost a few old trees but the new landscaping more than makes up for it. The truth i that if McDonald can get elected he will continue to try and disrupt the work of those who ARE elected.

  10. layla says:

    You might be more comfortable living somewhere else, because the citizens here have every right to speak out. That’s how we hold government accountable.

  11. confidential says:

    Enough is that most citizens now are afraid to speak up given the fear of retaliation. What kind of constitutional fredom of speech we have then? Totally totalitarian Fagler County!! We need change and to vote the whole BOCC out.

  12. layla says:

    Confidential, that is going to be difficult when most here in Flagler refuse to vote, aren’t even registered and just can’t be bothered. They say you get the government you deserve. Guess there likely is some truth to that.

  13. tulip says:

    Yes, citizens do have the right to speak out ,but when it’s constant complaining and whining about every little thing and because of political aspirations and vendettas, then it puts a different slant on things. All McDonald and his band of merry men have done is make fools of themselves, paid fines and cost one of their attorneys some big money, and have earned no credibility or respect except from those of the RRR club.

    And if enough lawyers knew that they could be liable for big payments to the defendant if the case is deemed frivolous, maybe they would stop being so greedy and use some common sense, think and investigate thoroughly before taking a case from constant complainers.

  14. layla says:

    Tulip, looks to me like it’s going through due process. Who is to say who is whining and who is not? Is McDonald running for office?

    I think the lawyers are probably very aware of their liability. You aren’t whining yourself, are you?

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