It is the albatross around Jim Manfre’s administration: A series of missteps—or ethical violations, in the state’s view—that Flagler County’s sheriff committed in the first 18 months of his second tenure have turned into a protracted duel between himself and the Florida Ethics Commission. Try as he may to build momentum in more positive directions, every few months the ethics case hobbles his hopes with a new twist, usually worsening the case against him even as he keeps battling it.
The ethics commission’s advocate struck the latest blow on Jan. 19 in a recommendation that Manfre pay a $19,000 fine for violating state law, and that he be publicly censured and reprimanded. Manfre countered that the whole case should be dismissed. (In an indication of local media’s negligence, FlaglerLive’s included, reporters did not pick up on the two, three-week-old proposed orders until the News-Journal and FlaglerLive received word of them today.)
An administrative law judge is expected to render a decision any day. That, of course, will again yield headlines: either vindication for Manfre, who has gone from admitting wrongdoing in one instance to claiming innocence on all counts (a discrepancy the administrative law judge is sure to make part of the reasoning behind the eventual decision), or the embarrassment of a judgment against him amounting to a mush harsher penalty than he would have faced even if he’d agreed to the ethics commission’s previous judgment.
Tuesday afternoon, in response to inquiries about the recommendation against him, Manfre issued an emailed statement through his spokesman. It read: “The administrative law Judge has received evidence and testimony in this case and we believe strongly based on this information that the commission did not meet their burden and the allegations will be found to have no merit. Because they have failed to meet their burden, we have submitted an order to the administrative law judge requesting the allegations be dismissed. (See attached order). At no time did I violate any Florida law or Sheriff’s Office policy. I am waiting for the judge to render her opinion which I expect to be issued in the very near future.”
The man who had set in motion the ethics complaint against Manfre by filing a public record request about his travels and spending was Greg Weston, one of the many deputies Manfre had fired or pushed out of the agency in the first two years of his tenure. In a biting irony, Manfre announced just last month—the day after his and the ethics advocate’s recommendations were filed—that he’d re-hired Weston. “I’m pleased to have Greg back at the FCSO and look forward to all that he can do for the agency,” Manfre was quoted as saying in a news release that accompanied a picture of Weston, the sheriff and another newly hired employee.
Weston’s public record request had gone to Linda Bolante when she was the department’s finance director. It was in Bolante’s efforts to comply with the request that she would eventually claim that discrepancies and problems emerged in the records and in Manfre’s handling of the matter, not least of which his decision to push her out of the agency.
Bolante filed the ethics charges against Manfre after she resigned in 2014. She filed a whistleblower suit against him in October 2014. That’s still ongoing. Revelations that she’d filed four ethics charges were published later, but the charges were filed in May 2014. The investigative report revealed that one of the people most instrumental in the case against Manfre was Rick Staly, then his undersheriff, who investigators reported had urged Manfre to settle up discrepancies and had mediated Bolante’s exit from the agency. Staly resigned in May 2015, and less than four months later announced he’d be running for sheriff, one of eight candidates who have filed so far, not including Manfre, but including one from his own party.
The ethics issue has been like catnip to candidates’ fangs.
It could have all ended six months after Bolante filed the ethics charges when Manfre agreed to a deal—and a violation of law—on one of the three charges that had stuck against him: that he’d used a department vehicle for personal out-of-state trips on three occasions. He was willing to pay a fine of $1,500 and pay restitution of nearly $1,000 to the department. In exchange, the commission advocate would dismiss two additional charges against him: that he’d accepted a gift by staying at his then-undersheriff’s time-share cabin in Tennessee, and that he’d misused a department-issued credit card for meals and alcohol.
Manfre has always maintained that an actual policy was never broken (“I never violated any law, internal sheriff’s policy or practice. Let me reiterate: I have not violated any policy, practice, procedure or law,” he said at a July news conference), and that regarding credit card use, he instituted just such a policy after the problems arose. He’s repeatedly made a distinction between “practice” and written “policy” with credit cards,finding exoneration in the fact that no policy violation took place since no written policy was in place. Bolante and the ethics commission took a dim view of the distinction, relying on long-standing practice, and while an actual policy was not in place regarding credit cards, one was in place regarding vehicle use, explicitly forbidding taking vehicles out of county without a supervisor’s permission. Again, Manfre has said he did not violate policy since he would have been the supervisor giving himself permission to use a vehicle.
When the case went before the ethics commission that December, commissioners decisively rejected the deal. Commissioners disagreed with setting aside the two additional charges, if those charges were true, essentially saying that an ethics violation is an ethics violation, and can’t be dealt away. The commission ordered a new investigation, ensuring that the case –and the bleak headlines—would continue, and the following June ruled 6-1 that he’d broken the law on all three counts.
Manfre’s posture then changed just as decisively as the commission’s vote: Gone was his willingness to admit to any wrongdoing whatsoever. He could have agreed to a settlement even then, which would have likely amounted to a $10,000 fine. He instead decided to contest the ethics commission’s finding before an Administrative Law Judge at the Division of Administrative Hearings. That hearing was held on Dec. 2. The Division of Administrative Hearing did not make that transcript available.
The Jan. 19 proposed orders were the two respective sides’ final play at this point in the proceedings, the equivalent of briefs intended to sway the administrative law judge one way or another. That order will soon be handed down. But it won’t be the final word. The order is meaningless on its own. It must still be considered by the full ethics commission in yet another public hearing—more headlines. Yet again after that Manfre can appeal the decision to the District Court of Appeal. So far, Manfre has given every indication that he’s not going to give up any avenue of appeal.