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Ethics Commission Dismisses Claim Against Flagler’s Craig Coffey, Adding to Pile of Frivolity

| June 8, 2016

craig coffey

County Administrator Craig Coffey is in the clear. (© FlaglerLive)

Somewhere in Tallahassee there may be a trash pile growing bigger every week as one government oversight agency or another–the Florida Ethics Commission, the Florida Elections Commission–tosses the latest complaint filed against Flagler County officials, usually from the same group of people who have been using the permissive complaint process like spaghetti: filing one attempt after another, usually by cutting and pasting its previous versions and changing names, and hoping that one would stick.

The pile grew a little higher Friday when the Florida Ethics Commission threw out the latest such complaint, one filed against County Administrator Craig Coffey in March. That complaint was one of a batch that alternately named Coffey, County Attorney Al Hadeed or the five county commissioners. In April, the ethics commission had thrown out five of the complaints filed against county government officials.

“I was confident in the thoroughness and integrity of the ethics commission and knew I’d be exonerated in due course,” Coffey said this afternoon. “I’m obviously happy with the outcome, and for those that are saying where there’s smoke there’s fire, I think there’s neither smoke nor fire.” (Coffey was referring to county commission candidate Denise Calderwood who, at a Hammock candidate forum Monday, had made the smoke-fire allegation in reference to the ethics filings.)

The allegations this time were related to the county’s acquisition of the old Memorial Hospital in Bunnell in 2013. The county bought the building and renovated parts into the sheriff’s operations center. (A separate complaint against Coffey was filed at the same time through the state elections commission, claiming he had inappropriately called for state monitors to be at the county elections office during the 2014 election. That complaint is pending.)

The complaint against Coffey was filed by Mark Richter on March 3, notarized by Carole Ruffalo, and includes statements by Bob Hamby and John Ruffalo–all members of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies to which Richter had belonged and from where he’d ostensibly resigned after his latest attack in poor taste against the press. Richter had run for the county commission in 2014, and lost in the primary. (The complaint is filed by “Mark Richter” of Bunnell, without a Sr. or Jr. attached: the Richter who ran is usually known as Sr. His son is Jr. The older Richter had previously owned property in the Mondex, but no longer, according to property appraiser records. The older Richter briefly ran for county commission again before withdrawing.)

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The complaint accuses Coffey of fabricating the old hospital’s value, meeting with county commissioners ahead of time behind closed doors and rushing through the hospital acquisition, and helping Commissioner Barbara revels and her business associates, who owned the property in question. (Revels paid a $2,500 ethics commission fine as a result of a separate complaint over the conflict.)

The hospital acquisition was controversial and initially lacked transparency, though county executives may freely meet with commissioners or business leaders and property owners without the violating sunshine law, even as they are negotiating deals: Coffey is a compulsive negotiator who thrives on deal-making, much of it legally behind the scenes. The ethics commission found no grounds to show that Coffey violated ethics rules or benefited himself during negotiations over the hospital acquisition.

The Richter complaint essentially rehashes settled issues, though it also includes an excerpt from the transcript of one of the conversations secretly taped by ex-Supervisor of Elections Kimberle Weeks in the context of canvassing board meetings. The excerpt is from an Aug. 25 meeting when Commissioner George Hanns and County Attorney Al Hadeed talked of Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth complaining about Revels “making money” and “pulling all kinds of deals,” in Hanns’s words (allegedly quoting Wadsworth), and Hanns, characteristically colorful, calling Wadsworth “a snake” and former court clerk Sid Crosby, to whom Hanns compared Wadsworth, a “rat bastard.”

The county is still seeking to recover attorneys’ fees generated by the defense of many of the complaints against local officials, but so far the ethics commission has refused to go along. The county is appealing.

The ethics commission’s action was the result of a closed meeting on June 3 whose results were announced this afternoon. The commission at that meeting said it reviewed a number of complaints for legal sufficiency. “These reviews,” a commission release states, “are limited to questions of jurisdiction and determinations as to whether the contents of the complaint are adequate to allege a violation of the Code of Ethics or other laws within the Commission’s jurisdiction. As no factual investigation precedes the reviews, the Commission’s conclusions do not reflect on the accuracy of the allegations made in these complaints.” Coffey’s was one of 12 such dismissals.

The ethics commission’s order regarding Coffey was signed today.

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4 Responses for “Ethics Commission Dismisses Claim Against Flagler’s Craig Coffey, Adding to Pile of Frivolity”

  1. Crying Wolf says:

    Shame really – not only a waste of taxpayer’s money paid to state employees who had better things to do and our county attorney’s time taken away from his day to day watching the store… but there’s also the old saying
    “Cry wolf too many times and when there is a real wolf around nobody will pay attention”…
    The county certainly does not deserve in my opinion the kosher kitchen award of the year ( with the exception of several exceptional individuals) but perhaps one day someone may make a big boo boo – legally – and a perhaps totally legitimate will most likely be tossed in the trash just like the so-called baseless time wasting recent barrage have been… The hospital purchase was a stupid waste of our money as is the latest raise in travel expenses which at $45,000 is far more than many Flagler County residents earn gross in a year.
    A real shame all the way around.

  2. The Law says.... says:

    Apparently recording a public canvassing board meeting is not against the law. Weeks was following the law by making the recordings public record and when she transcribed written meeting minutes from the recordings as the Florida in the Sunshine Law Manual on the Florida Attorney General’s web site on pages 42-45 describes as appropriate and legal. Since Public Officials can’t claim to be secretly recorded during a public meeting, then she didn’t secretly record them. Hadeed and Erickson and Hadeed and Hanns apparently got caught talking about something that was unethical and an embarrassment to the county commission and now are crying fowl at Weeks’ expense. What does Gail Wadsworth, Barbara Revels and Syd Crosby have to say about what has been said about them by these elected officials?

    Florida in the Sunshine Law Manual
    From Pages 42-45 from the Attorney General’s Website

    (4) Cameras and tape recorders
    A board or commission may adopt reasonable rules and policies which ensure the orderly
    conduct of a public meeting and require orderly behavior on the part of those persons attending
    a public meeting. A board, however, may not ban the use of nondisruptive recording devices.
    Pinellas County School Board v. Suncam, Inc., 829 So. 2d 989 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002) (school board’s
    ban on unobtrusive videotaping invalid). Accord AGO 91-28. And see AGO 77-122 (silent
    nondisruptive tape recording of district meeting permissible).
    The Legislature in Ch. 934, F.S., appears to implicitly recognize the public’s right to silently
    record public meetings. AGO 91-28. Chapter 934, F.S., the Security of Communications Act,
    regulates the interception of oral communications. Section 934.02(2), F.S., however, defines
    “[o]ral communication” to specifically exclude “any public oral communication uttered at a
    public meeting . . . .” See also Inf. Op. to Gerstein, July 16, 1976, stating that public officials
    may not complain that they are secretly being recorded during public meetings in violation of s.
    934.03, F.S.
    c. Tape recording or Internet archive as minutes
    The Sunshine Law does not require that public boards and commissions tape record their
    meetings. See AGO 86-21. However, other statutes may require that certain proceedings be
    recorded. Cf. AGO 10-42 (where statute requires that all closed proceedings of child abuse
    death review committee be recorded and that no portion be off the record, audio recording of the
    proceedings “would appear to be the most expedient and cost-efficient manner to ensure that all
    discussion is recorded”).
    However, while a board is authorized to tape record the proceedings if it chooses to do
    so, the Sunshine Law also requires written minutes. AGO 75-45. Similarly, while a board may
    archive the full text of all workshop discussions conducted on the Internet, written minutes of the
    workshops must also be prepared and promptly recorded. AGO 08-65. Moreover, the tape recordings
    are public records and their retention is governed by schedules established by the Division of Library
    and Information Services of the Department of State in accordance with s. 257.36(6), F.S. AGO 86-21.
    Accord AGO 86-93 (tape recordings of school board meetings are subject to Public Records Act even
    though written minutes are required to be prepared and made available to the public).

  3. DaveT says:

    Ok people. Reporting a politician to the State Ethics board works sometimes. But the only real way to rid the county of a politician that you feel is not worthy of his elected job, is to not vote for the person the next time. Its that simple.

  4. August Maxwell says:

    Its easy to see in Bunnell, who gets the money,look at the newest nicest buildings- Govt & Sherriffs Dept.- slightly sad.

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