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.)
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.