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County Attorney Hadeed Challenges State Ethics Panel’s Fee Denial and Calls for Appeal

| February 2, 2016

al hadeed florida ethics commission

Al Hadeed, the county attorney, says the state ethics commission was wrong to deny Flagler its petition for attorneys’ fees in two recent cases found to be frivolous. (© FlaglerLive)

Flagler County Attorney Al Hadeed is pressing the county commission not to accept two unanimous votes by the Florida Ethics Commission denying the county attorneys’ fees in frivolous cases against Hadeed and County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin. Hadeed wants the commission to appeal the ethics panel’s decisions to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. He claims the ethics commission is mis-applying Florida law, and that Flagler is entitled to those fees.

The county commission will decide whether to file the appeal following a presentation on the issue by another attorney in two weeks. If the commission does file the appeal, it will find itself once again in a position to spur new legal precedent, as it did late last year and early this year with its new ordinance regulating short-term vacation rentals. That ordinance led to a court challenge locally. It was largely upheld by a circuit court last year, and again by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal last month—decisions that vindicate commissioners’ policy, but also their attorney’s shaping of the ordinance.

But an appeal in the ethics commission case is not without political risk. The commission would be perceived as trying to intimidate or silence critics who, however overzealous as in the present cases, exercise their right under the law to file ethics complaints.

The cases at hand relate to a complaint filed by Dennis McDonald against McLaughlin, and by John Ruffalo against Hadeed. McDonald and Ruffalo are members of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies, and have been on the attack against local governments in various ways for the past couple of years. In voluminous filings with the ethics commission, they made copious accusations against Hadeed and McLaughlin drawn from circumstance and assumption rather than evidence. The ethics commission’s investigations saw nothing there and tossed out the complaints.

Hadeed, through the attorney the county’s insurance company hired to handle the case, Mark Herron,  then argued that the complaints were replete with knowingly false allegations and that they were intended to damage his and McLaughlin’s reputation. Under Florida law, the county was then entitled to recover attorneys’ fees generated in defense of the complaints. Last month the ethics commission unanimously disagreed and went along with its staff counsel’s recommendation to reject Flagler’s motions.

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Monday morning, Hadeed made his pitch to county commissioners, saying the ethics panel erred.

The ethics investigation and commission agreed that “they found nothing, nothing within all those pages that amounted to an ethics violation,” Hadeed said. “So no material fact, there can’t be a false material fact, and therefore there can’t be an attorney fee. Are you following that logic?”

“Yeah,” Commissioner Frank Meeker said, “but it’s making my head spin.”

Summarizing his interpretation of the ethics commission’s reasoning, Hadeed said that If the ethics commission had found that there was a sufficient allegation, and the county had gone through the process of fighting it, defeating it and being vindicated, then it would be eligible for fees.

The interpretation may be sound, but it’s not the only interpretation: the ethics commission in its order said that malicious intent on Ruffalo’s and McDonald’s part was not proved, and that the attempt to show that malice existed because Ruffalo and McDonald or their allies had also filed similar complaints in other forums was not sufficient proof. The ethics commission also found “lacking” the claim that Ruffalo and McDonald had made knowingly false claims.

So the question is not whether the filings by Ruffalo and McDonald were frivolous, baseless or even injurious to the reputations of Hadeed and McLaughlin. The ethics commission found them baseless. But it’s whether they were intentionally and recklessly so, a high bar it found Flagler’s petition did not meet.

Hadeed said the staff of the ethics commission has uniformly opposed such reimbursement of fees, in part, Hadeed thinks, because the staff would have to start working on just such petitions, which would be a distraction from “the many numerous complaints that they have to review,” Hadeed said. “So I understand it’s a huge workload issue, but nevertheless it’s part of the law. So while I respect their position, in my humble opinion, what they have done is created a new requirement that’s not in the statute.”

He noted that three of the ethics commission’s members had just been seated when Flagler’s case was heard, and were unlikely to go against their staff’s recommendation. Even if they had done so, however, the vote would still have carried against Flagler’s position.

McDonald, for his part, has interpreted Hadeed’s push for fees as an “attempt to bully the public they are supposed to serve,” as he put it in a letter to the Historic City News, a website in St. Augustine, on Jan. 29. Writing in support of the ethics commission’s votes, he wrote, “This decision maintains the system the Florida Legislature set in place years ago to provide a structured process for taxpayers to report ethics misdeeds. This system of reporting and due process was created to prevent the need for citizens from having to enter the courts and hire a lawyer to compel compliance with ethical behavior standards by Florida’s officials, both elected and appointed, as provided by state regulation.” But the letter also repeats some allegations that have been discredited.

Meanwhile, attorneys’ fees and time continue to run up the clock on the cases. There has been no exact accounting of either time or money spent on those cases so far.

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17 Responses for “County Attorney Hadeed Challenges State Ethics Panel’s Fee Denial and Calls for Appeal”

  1. Watching says:

    McLaughlin’s reputation, that’s a joke! Only in Flagler County can a man with a net worth of 12k, be in charge of Economic Development. That says it all!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Man let it go. Move on and do something productive.
    Who is going to continue to pay the cost?
    I wager that not a dime will come out of your pocket.

  3. Robjr says:

    Man let it go, move on and do something productive.

    Whose money is being used to pay the cost to continue to chase a ghost.

    I wager not a dime is coming out of your pocket.
    How about you donate some of your six figure income to the cause if you want to keep up the chase.

  4. scoff the cuff says:

    And how much more will this cost us?
    Why do the elected of this city and county continue to wade into the mires?

  5. confidential says:

    The case was NOT frivolous to start with so give it up! This FCBOCC minions and their attorney keep approving themselves to keep wasting our taxpayers funds in their “now really frivolous appeal to the ethics commission correct ruling” . Also meeker wasting our hard earned taxes demanding a forensic audit of the SOE Weeks financials after over 14 months of their favorite SOE star was in office?
    Pathetic real waste of our hard earned always increasing taxes.

  6. confidential says:

    Why did they spend my taxes in a complete annual audit of the SOE finances as is customary every year and now Meeker demands a forensic audit….BOCC approved the annual audits and why now is the new demand ” based in lingering questions?”, just because we are forced to pay for it to satisfy their witch hunts? Why don’t they get down to work on properly governing issues other than wasting time and our $$ in vindictive new attacks? What about Hadeed paying for his own legal team to challenge the Florida Ethics Commission? He doesn’t get it yet that Slapp suits are prohibited by Florida Law and means: A strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.

  7. Fredrick says:

    Go get’em Al!! The RRRA’s boys need to be made an example of to prevent this same crap from happening over and over again.

  8. Layla says:

    Folks, you have an election coming up soon. If you want this to stop, if you want to stop the wasting of your money, vote in a new Commission….one who will take responsibility for running the Commission and not a NON elected Manager who is not accountable for his actions. Re-elect nobody on that commission.

    It is a very disturbing thing to see any elective body go after the citizens for legitimate lawsuits and complaints. Represent the people, Mr. Hadeed and not your own interests.

  9. Commom sense says:

    If Hadeed does not pursue this you will continue to see more frivolous lawsuits with the accompanying waste of tax dollars. The extremists with the RRR are not done yet.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Layla is correct, make your statement at election time, maybe we the people can make a difference! On a side note, isn’t what Hadeed is doing a bit frivolous also and can we the people re-coup those legal fees ?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Considering what Hadeed is paid with our tax dollars it is pretty pathetic that he himself didn’t defend complaints filed, and he niw wants to recover legal fees and that he is now taking time perusing something he sounds like he’s not entitled to at our expense. Isn’t Hadeed being paid like $100 an hour? Who does he think he is to challnge an entire board? I guess at some point commissioners will realize the liability he is to the county. Still makes no sense me why county attorney Hadeed didn’t handle complaints that he deemed to be frivilious….Maybe the complaints wern’t so frivolous or Hadeed wasn’t capable of handling them and is just over paid. I think or commissioners should be asking questions and evaluating Hadeed’s ability. If the commissioners are wrecklessly spending our tax dollars then we should vote them out in 6 months and bring the new.

  12. Layla says:

    Done with WHAT? Extremists? It looks to many like you are the extremist here. Vote, people. If you don’t like the candidates, then run yourselves.

    Good God, what a waste of time…

  13. Wshful Thinking says:

    Al Hadeed is thinking like an attorney – which is just fine. However it is MY money he will be spending, not his nor do I have a say so in spending my money so please Al move on…..
    There are bigger fish to fry in Flagler County which merit your time more than another iffy expensive appeal.

  14. confidential says:

    I would advise to the current SOE Kati Lenhart that she should be really concerned that FCBOCC Meeker is demanding that his colleagues approve his request for a forensic audit
    A forensic audit in a very busy 2016 elections will be very disruptive in such a complicated elections process for a new and still learning SOE. She should not so willingly agree to BOCC to allow it until elections are over. Kati Lenhart as the SOE has the right to defer that forensic audit request to right after election process is over based in the simple fact that would be “a violation of SOE security procedures” having auditors in and out of SOE offices, files and computers to achieve their forensic investigation, thus endangering the fair elections process and implicating current SOE Lenhart and making her responsible for any errors, aused by the disruption. Probably that audit also may bring about maybe Lenhart minimal human unintended errors that can be used against her re-election to gain support for FCBOCC favorites contenders, Medley or Seay. Now if as Meeker said he want to forensic audit past SOE administrations (in plural as reads) that may be including Peggy Border but can’t be done as the 2 years statute of limitation is over, anyway cast a convenient engineered shadow on Seay on the eyes of the voters. Soon the two years will be also over for Weeks for auditing…Then I see two more reasons for Meeker’s forensic audit request….promote the election of their favorite next SOE (maybe not Lenhart) and further hack again Weeks, all while disrupting once more our elections process. Too bad he plans to use taxpayers funds for it, then why he and the other 4 approved the 2014 annual audit done? Pathetic!

  15. confidential says:

    Common: most of us resident tax payers in Flagler County have nothing to do with any RRR political affiliation and we do not approve this current waste of monies by Hadeed and Meeker. If they want an appeal and a outrageous costly upgrade to a “forensic audit” of past SOE’s administrarions (in plural) as described means they want also to extremely audit not only Weeks but Peggy Border as well? Does anyone here realize the cost of such forensic audit? They need to pay it themselves not on tax payers pockets. Looks like you want to silence us in a totalitarian government? A forensic audit is insulting to the constitutional officers presented audited: “A forensic audit and a financial statement audit have separate objectives that do not overlap. Request a forensic audit if is suspected asset-theft fraud”

  16. Rita May says:

    I do feel sorry for the commissioners who have to pay large legal fees to defend themselves against these ‘frivolous’ ethics charges. But, I also understand that ‘john q public’ has a right to file a complaint if there is just cause without retribution. Isn’t there a way or add a statue to the ethics laws that names these specific people from Flagler County (i.e. Dennis McDonald, John Ruffalo, or any of the other people who belong to this radical RRRA group), to flag the complaint for research on the complainant before going any farther? Just asking.

  17. Sunshine says:

    What a dope! No is no…what part of that didn’t you understand? You may be able to make up your own rules as you go around here, but you are now out of your league. Show some respect and play by the rules.

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