Last Updated: 6:22 p.m.
The Florida Commission on Ethics this morning voted unanimously to accept an administrative law judge’s recommendation that Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre be fined $6,200 and publicly reprimanded and censured over two ethical violations dating back to the early part of his tenure in 2013. Those are non-criminal penalties.
The commission’s 8-0 vote followed arguments from Manfre’s lawyers and the commission’s advocate. But commissioners appeared uninterested in debating the matter: they voted summarily to dispose of it and move on to their next item, without discussion, shortly after the commission advocate had summed up the case.
The commission’s role today, however, was limited. Last July it had found probable cause on the same three counts in play today. Manfre appealed that decision to an administrative law judge, as was his right. Under the rules, the commission could have rejected or modified the administrative law judge’s recommendation, but it could not reweigh the evidence, judge the credibility of witnesses or resolve conflicts over the evidence. All that was the administrative law judge’s province. “Consequently,” the order the commission was approving today states, “if the record of the [Division of Administrative Hearings] proceedings discloses any competent substantial evidence to support a finding of fact made by the [Administrative Law Judge], the Commission on Ethics is bound by that finding.” That, in large part, explains why the commission did not feel compelled to discuss a case it has been tangling with through several sessions over the past two and a half years.
Manfre described himself as “appalled at the Commission on Ethics’ process” in a prepared statement issued after the vote. “From four alleged violations to three and now to two, in the end, this was all about $300 spent over four officially sanctioned sheriff events that should have been resolved with the information I provided to my accounting department. It also had to do with the value of a three-night stay I spent at the personal invitation of Rick Staly, my former undersheriff’s personally owned cabin. The value of this stay, by the testimony of the commission’s own witness, was subject to interpretation.”
Manfre had not rejected the administrative law judge’s recommendation outright, but filed three “exceptions” to it that nearly amounted to the same thing. He rejected the judge’s factual findings and argued that the judge’s conclusions were not supported by evidence. He asked that the penalty be rejected and impose at most $500 while eliminating the public censure and reprimand. The commission advocate did not concede.
Manfre, Elizabeth Miller–the commission advocate–said, was offered an opportunity to take responsibility but has shown “no recognition or understanding” for the inappropriateness of his actions and “continues to deny responsibility by blaming others.” She said he gave no indication that his behavior would be altered. “It’s clear from his exceptions and from his own words that he still does not understand the application of the code of ethics to his behavior.” The language of Administrative Law Judge Suzanne van Wyk recommended order was equally severe, though the judge had significantly reduced the $19,000 fine the advocate had initially sought–after the advocate two years ago had recommended a $1,500 fine in a settlement the commission rejected.
“Once the order is issued, he will be able to appeal the decision to the District Court of Appeal,” an ethics commission spokeswoman said. “The matter will be sent to the Governor for imposition of the penalty.”
A call to Manfre’s cell phone was not immediately returned. At 11:29, he issued the one-page statement through the sheriff’s office’s public information office in which he vowed to contest the decision in court. “I am certain that an unbiased district court of appeals will overturn this biased decision,” he wrote. (Laura Williams, one of Manfre’s spokespersons, said in an email that Manfre was attending his son’s wedding this weekend and would not be fielding press calls.)
Whichever way Manfre proceeds will further complicate his prospects for re-election, starting with a primary challenge within his own Democratic Party, from former deputy Larry Jones, in late August. Six Republicans and one independent have filed to run, including former Sheriff Don Fleming, whose name re-emerged in Manfre’s arguments in the present case. If Manfre concedes, his opponents will have a withering weapon against him–just as Manfre himself had when he defeated Fleming, who was campaigning with merely the cloud of an ethics charge hanging over him. If Manfre continues to fight the charges in district court, there is a small chance he could prevail, but at a heavy price. It could be too late, as such proceedings take time. Meanwhile, his opponents can use the words of the administrative law judge and the ethics commission’s advocate in their campaign pitches against him: that Manfre is not taking responsibility and is unaccountable. It is also possible that Manfre may have decided to keep fighting to clear his name even if it costs him the election.
Manfre also faces a whistleblower lawsuit in Flagler County Circuit Court–also brought by the same person who filed the ethics charge. Manfre has been battling that lawsuit as assiduously as he’s been battling the ethics charges, in essence playing into what may have been his opponents’ political playbook all along.
The ethics case against Manfre dates back to 2013 when his ex-finance director, Linda Bolante, filed charges that he misused department credit cards by charging personal expenses that included alcohol, that he accepted and did not report a gift from his former undersheriff, Rick Staly, when Manfre stayed at Staly’s cabin in Tennessee, and that he used department vehicles for personal travel out of the state. (The charge regarding vehicle use was dropped from the final order.) Staly has since resigned and is running against Manfre in the sheriff’s race. Bolante is supporting Staly.
Manfre openly accused Staly of political motivations in his statement today: “Finally, please do not forget who has been involved in this process,” Manfre wrote. “Mr. Staly, a man who claims he retired from the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office after approximately two years of service has a sordid history of his own when it comes to ethical violations.”
Staly described the statement as “typical Manfre” when reached for comment by phone as he was attending a lunch this afternoon.
He addressed the statements in a statement of his own later this afternoon: “It’s unfortunate that Mr. Manfre continues to spout off inaccurate statements and misguided attacks simply to distract from his own legal troubles,” Staly wrote. “The unanimous vote of the Florida Commission on Ethics, which includes both Democrats and Republicans, finding Mr. Manfre guilty of ethics violations shows that he has difficulty following laws. There is no doubt Mr. Manfre will try to attack me time and again, as he is desperate to maintain his position in the wake of his violations and recommendations for public reprimand.”
In reply to Manfre’s accusations, enclosed letters from Kevin Beary, the former Orange County Sheriff Manfre had said in his statement that Staly had undermined, and Neal Trautman, director of the National Institute of Ethics. Both letters vouch for Staly. Staly also referred to news articles where Manfre is quoted as lauding him–just as Manfre had hired him, then when Staly announced his resignation.
Manfre has maintained all along that while he had judgement lapses, he neither broke the law nor violated department policies. Rather, he said he relied on his top staff to ensure that he followed what procedures were in place, something he said his staff, and specifically Bolante, did not do, and that he subsequently strengthened department policies and paid what was owed.
In mid-February, when the judge issued her recommendation, Manfre said he would agree to the punishment “as long as the ethics commission follows the ALJ’s current recommendation.” But three weeks later he said he had changed his mind and would appeal any finding against him. He introduced a new argument in his case, saying the penalties he was facing were far harsher than the $500 penalty levied against former Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming when Fleming was found to have violated ethics laws. (Fleming had accepted discounted meals and preferential access to the Hammock Beach Club for years.)
Miller told the commission that the Fleming argument was introduced after the case was argued before the administrative law judge, and should therefore not be part of the proceedings.
[This is a developing story. More soon.]