The drizzle of ethics or elections commission complaints against Flagler County government officials isn’t ending.The same group of people responsible for some two dozen such complaints and court actions in the past three years–few of which led to actionable findings–have filed four more complaints, this time naming County Administrator Craig Coffey in two of them, County Attorney Al Hadeed in another, and all five county commissioners in the fourth.
The complaints rehash allegations made in previous complaints related either to the 2013 county purchase of the old Memorial Hospital in Bunnell (now the sheriff’s office’s administrative headquarters) or to conflicts between the commission and Kimberle Weeks, the former elections supervisor currently under felony indictment.
“I read the complaints and I think they set new highs for the idea of creative writing,” Commissioner Frank Meeker said before making the first of four motions, all of them finding that every complaint is related to commissioners or administrators performing their official duties. As such, the county may defend against the complaints through its resources and insurer, sparing the complaints’ targets from having to hire their own lawyer or spend their own money.
The ethics complaint against Coffey was filed by Mark Richter, a felon who ran for the county commission in 2014 and whose public behavior became so churlish that even the Reagan group distanced itself from him until he resigned. He had started a new bid for the county commission this year but abandoned it, claiming that he was leaving the county. That has apparently not happened. (His voter-registration address as of March still lists him as living in Daytona North, or the Mondex, west of Bunnell.)
The complaint focuses on Coffey’s role in the acquisition of the old hospital. The acquisition was controversial at the time and led to the first in the long series of ethics and other complaints against county officials–that one against Commissioner Barbara Revels. The ethics commission found Revels had not properly disclosed business relationships she had with one of the owners of the hospital. She paid a $2,500 fine. Subsequent complaints haven’t stopped since. But of those 23 complaints or actions, just two more led to nominal fines, over paperwork missteps by two commissioners, while more than half the remaining complaints were tossed out as invalid or frivolous.
In one lawsuit the county successfully fought off (it was declared frivolous) the county also won a judgment for attorneys’ fees. The county has been seeking attorneys’ fees in two complaints the ethics commission found to be groundless–those filed by John Ruffalo and Dennis McDonald, directors of the Reagan group. But so far the county has been unsuccessful. The case is on appeal.
The three additional complaints just filed through the Elections Commission are identical. McDonald confirmed Monday afternoon that he’d filed them. One names Coffey, one names Hadeed and the third names the entire county commission.
“If I didn’t file it within two years, this thing would go out to sea,” McDonald said.
Referring to the complaint that names Coffey, Hadeed said, “It essentially addresses the actions that he was involved in to request the secretary of state to provide observers under the state statute for the general election of 2014.” The county administration had requested observers during that election because of fears of irregularities in the supervisor’s office. At the time, Weeks was engaged in protracted conflicts with the county and various members of the canvassing board.
The elections complaint against Coffey, Hadeed continued this morning, also challenges the administrator’s role in the county commission’s decision to seek attorneys’ frees related to the frivolous ethics complaints. The complaint charges that “requesting the observers to the general election and filing these attorney fee petitions have an adverse impact on the administration of the election code,” Hadeed said.
State law provides for the recovery of attorneys’ fees in frivolous suits, even when the case goes through the ethics commission, though the bar is set very high for such a recovery. The complaints, in other words, appear to be tailored out of the same burlap rhetoric that have been saddling the county, the ethics and the elections commissions for almost three years, with little evidence that the outcome in these filings would be any different than previous filings.
McDonald said the county administration illegally requested–and the secretary of state illegally provided–election monitors. McDonald cites state law, under chapter 101.58: “The Department of State may, at any time it deems fit; upon the petition of 5 percent of the registered electors; or upon the petition of any candidate, county executive committee chair, state committeeman or committeewoman, or state executive committee chair, appoint one or more deputies whose duties shall be to observe and examine the registration and election processes and the condition, custody, and operation of voting systems and equipment in any county or municipality.” The law, McDonald says in his interpretation of the statute, does not give the county authority to request monitors.
The timing of the new complaints is suspect, however, as these filings are taking place just as previous ones have been largely dismissed, but with an election year unfolding, and three county commissioners up for re-election. The complaints, in other words, appear intended to create the self-fulfilling prophesy of a cloud hanging over the incumbents–assuming voters have not by now gotten used to the complainants’ maneuvers: complaints hung over Commissioners Meeker and Nate McLaughlin in 2014, too, but both were re-elected, and each defeated one of the men most prone to file such complaints: McLaughlin defeated Richter in his primary, while Meeker defeated McDonald in his.
“There’s no question that they were trying to take over the election or influence it for the benefit of the incumbents,” McDonald said, referring to Meeker and McLaughlin.