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Flagler Veterans Court Pitch Framed in Crude Attack on Court System by DeSantis Envoy

| August 17, 2016

Flagler County Commissioners at last November's commemoration of Veterans Day, where the idea for a Flagler County Veterans Court emerged. (© FlaglerLive)

Flagler County Commissioners at last November’s commemoration of Veterans Day, where the idea for a Flagler County Veterans Court emerged. (© FlaglerLive)

The Flagler County Commission on Monday gave its full support to the creation of a veterans court that, as with drug court, would divert participants from the traditional court system, enabling them to follow treatment programs and potentially avoid harsher punishment. Volusia County has two such courts, St. Johns County is preparing to launch one of its own. Flagler has between 11,000 and 12,000 veterans. The court system would have to approve the diversion program, and the county commission would have to fund it at least in part.

The workshop on Monday, however, took an oddly abrasive turn when one of the two officials presenting the proposal to the county commission, Randy Stapleford—a part-time employee in the office of U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, where he handles veterans’ affairs—blamed the local court system for delays or silence in providing information, openly questioned the veracity of a Flagler judge, and singled out Chief Judge Terence Perkins as the alleged reason behind nine months of delays. Stapleford levied his criticism on two separate occasions during the 40-minute workshop, prompting George Hanns, one of the commissioners—who was not familiar with Perkins’s role as chief judge—to question whether a reelection campaign was behind the judge’s delays. (Perkins is not running.)

Stapleford also told commissioners that a judge had already agreed to “run the court,” which, in fact, is not true. “We are examining the feasibility of a Veterans Court in Flagler County,” a spokesperson for the 7th Judicial Circuit, which would run the court, said today.

It was a strange way for Stapleford to go about his presentation, considering that he had a meeting scheduled for Friday with Perkins to discuss Flagler’s veterans’ court. Stapleford’s approach may have been crudely tactical: he was before the county commission to win its approval for the proposed court, and he wanted to take that approval to the judge, ostensibly as an added pressure to win approval. Stapleford’s boss, DeSantis—who has a scant record of appearing in Flagler though he just moved to the county, let alone facilitating services to the county–is running for re-election.

Another surprise: though the meeting was only a workshop, and workshops are never televised on the county’s community access channel, as regular meetings are, this one was.

Stapleford says the germ of a veterans court was planted last November in informal conversations at the county’s Veterans Day commemoration in Bunnell. (Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, who was at the workshop Monday, spoke of such a veteran court in detail before the Palm Coast City Council in 2014, as part of his broader focus on how mental health issues intersect with law enforcement.) Stapleford was looking for a point person locally, and found him in Ed Fuller, an ally of County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin—and an applicant, these days, to the seat left vacant by the death of Commissioner Frank Meeker, which may explain why the veteran court proposal suddenly reemerged: it would be a valuable feather in Fuller’s cap on the way to an appointment.

randall stapleford

Randall Stapleford is a part-time employee in Rep. Ron DeSantis’s office.

Instead of outlining the basic timeline of the proposal since November, Stapleford then went on the attack: after the meetings in November, “we had a large meeting here, in this building here, I believe in December, Ed, if I’m correct, sometime in that—where many of us met, many of the commissioners met. Frank Meeker was here for that time as well. All the layers who would be involved in a veterans’ treatment court, with the exception of one, was at that meeting, to my best understanding.”

If such a meeting took place with Meeker and any other commissioner present, as Stapleford implied, it would have been a violation of the Sunshine law: two or more elected officials may not meet outside of a publicly noticed and accessible meeting.

Later in Monday’s workshop County Administrator Craig Coffey told commissioners that he “wanted to acquaint you with the topic”—a phrase quoted again today in a release issued by the county, as if to stress that Monday’s meeting was, in fact, the first time commissioners were getting clued in to the issue. Clearly, it wasn’t. Meeker aside, Hanns, the commission’s most ardent supporter of veterans’ issues, said he’d been kept abreast of all the meetings regarding the effort, though he didn’t specify whether he’d attended any. Asked about such a meeting out of the sunshine, a county spokesperson said of Stapleford: “I am told that he misspoke. Frank Meeker was the only commissioner at that meeting.”

Stapleford went on with what turned into a startling attack on the court: “Everyone at that point was in agreeance. We went back to the judge who had agreed to run the court, and we seemed to be caught up on an unknown reason of delay, so I pursued on emails, I kept getting back responses that I didn’t understand—something is not right, something is holding this process up. We were later told to consult a person at the court to gain some statistics. We thought the statistics were going to be coming forward to us. The judge had told me and had told others that she had talked to Chief Justice Perkins.” Flagler County has only one permanently assigned female judge, County Judge Melissa Moore-Stens. “Whether that is true or not, I don’t know, but Judge Perkins called me, probably in the March timeline, and we discussed a little bit about the court and why we hadn’t gotten any statistics. I really didn’t have a response from the judge at that time, but in any case we decided to continue to push forward.”

None of the commissioners—who are usually more alert to personal or public slights—mentioned Stapleford’s claims.

A DeSantis staffer questions the veracity of a judge among repeated sallies against the 7th Judicial Circuit’s chief judge.

Twenty minutes later, Commission Chairman Barbara Revels raised a basic question about how often a veteran court might be used in the county—how many of the county’s veterans might end up cycling through the system. The answer to the question is unknown for now, or “it may not be that significant,”  Stapleford said.

But he wasn’t satisfied with only that answer and renewed his attack:  “We have been trying for nine months to have support to get these numbers and to find out the process of which the judge would like to run a veterans treatment court,” Stapleford said. “If we don’t have his backing, we’re not going to have one, so nine months trying to get information, I’ve been personally told, unless he directs somebody to give it to me, we’re not going to have it.”

“You’re saying the judge controls the information?” Revels asked.

“I can’t tell you yes or no, absolutely,” Stapleford said, “but I can tell you that every judge that we’ve had deal on this had to refer to Judge Perkins, and dealing with Judge Perkins, I’ve tried to get that information. I have been unsuccessful. So we are bringing hopefully a consensus of a veterans’ treatment court for Flagler to the judge on Friday, in a meeting about 2 o’clock. We’re hoping to find out whether or not we would have his support.”

That’s when Hanns questioned Perkins’s motives, after asking for a clarification about Perkins’s role.

“Volusia County has two veterans’ courts,” he said, “one on the east side one on the west side, he’s definitely in charge over those also in Volusia. I don’t know why he’s balking on this. The first question I have is, is he up for reelection? It’s just a question. I just need a yes or no.”

“He is not,” Fuller told him.

“In fairness to Judge Perkins this has been a two-pronged approach, that being Randy and I,” Fuller continued, clearly unsettled by the abrasive turn the discussion had taken, regarding the court. “And along the way as you all know in the process there is miscommunication sometimes, one time you think that that has been communicated properly, and you find out four months later that really wasn’t necessarily communicated that way, or the understanding is not communicated that way, and I think in this particular instance, that was the case, in defense of anybody.” He added: “Judge Perkins is amenable to meeting with us, as a matter of fact he’s a big champion of this program, we have two in Volusia and one in St. Johns, so I really don’t think that’s going to be an issue. I don’t think it is an issue.”

Stapleford’s approach was not unusual for a DeSantis staffer: DeSantis himself is known for a similarly abrasive, prosecutorial style, whether in committee hearings or in television appearances (usually on issues that have little or nothing directly to do with the 6th Congressional District), and regarding veterans affairs publicly taking to task Robert McDonald, the national secretary of veterans affairs, over the very same issue Stapleford was accusing Perkins of: lack of information. “I, along with many veterans in the community,” DeSantis had written the secretary in 2014, regarding an issue in St. Augustine, “find it very disappointing that no response to date has been received from the VA on any of our correspondence. Unfortunately, this only leads to further deterioration of public confidence in the VA.”

Asked about Stapleford’s claims regarding the court system, a 7th Judicial Circuit spokesperson said: “We’re not going to comment directly on Randall Stapleford’s presentation. I don’t think it would be helpful to delve into these initial discussions.”

The 7th Circuit premiered a Veterans Court program in Daytona Beach in November 2013 and expanded to west Volusia in 2014, the spokesperson said in an email. “We have had more than 100 veterans “graduate,” meaning they successfully completed the terms of Veterans Court. There are monthly Veterans Court hearings in both DeLand and Daytona Beach, with two Volusia County Court Judges presiding. This year, we have started work on a new Veterans Court in St. Johns County.”

There are some 168 such courts in the nation.

“This is drug court instead of veterans,” Fuller said. “The beauty about this court is that it can be tracked inside drug-treatment court. You have all the same resources, except in this instance you’ll have a veterans administrator-officer provided by the VA and they will provide the services for the veterans.” Sarasota and Manatee counties operate their veterans’ court as part of their drug court.

george hanns

County Commissioner George Hanns, seen here at last year’s Veterans Day ceremony, has been the commission’s most ardent advocate for veterans. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

Manfre, the sheriff, described the situation currently: the arrest process itself does not include identifying anyone as a veteran. That happens in the booking process at the jail. “Once we know someone is a veteran, we contact the Veterans Administration,” Manfre said, so any available services may be provided. But the veteran court would be key to tracking veterans, enabling the VA and other resources to better assist individuals. The probation system can also recommend conditions the judge could implement, such as PTSD or substance abuse counseling. “So by concentrating it, one time, with one court, with all the resources there,” Manfre said, “the results of other communities that have done this are much better for the veterans.”

There was little doubt that county commissioners would give their approval to the veterans court concept Monday, improving the chances that Flagler would become the 24th county to have such a diversion program.

“As a county we need to set the example for our veterans that they are welcome in Flagler County and we will take care of them,” Hanns said.

Commissioner Charlie Ericksen said the best way forward was for Flagler to follow the model set by other counties, rather than replicating the process. “This is a new adventure for us but not for those who have been down the road already,” he said.

“We often talk about veterans falling through the cracks,” Commissioner Nate McLaughlin said, “and this is just one of those programs that help plug those holes up so we know where they are and what they need. Sometimes it is a criminal offense that you identify a veteran in need, in trouble. They’re not necessarily criminals. We don’t know what the PTSD has done to these folks, and this is just another crack that we can fill in with this.”

Coffey, the county administrator, said he’d set aside $25,000 in the county’s budget for the potential court. “I don’t know that we have anybody necessarily opposed to it,” he told commissioners. “I think it’s just a matter of meeting and moving forward, but I didn’t want to bring you an issue later that you were unaware of or read about it in the paper.”

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18 Responses for “Flagler Veterans Court Pitch Framed in Crude Attack on Court System by DeSantis Envoy”

  1. Josh Davis says:

    Crazy how all of this comes up around election time. Now politicians using our Veterans for political gain. Shameless.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Ron DeSantis isn’t a veteran. He’s a member of the Navy Reserves. His dual role of reporting to the military as a Sailor and governing the military as a legislator complicates his ability to advocate against the wishes of the military. In this case, there are complications associated with his office advocating for a service from which he may personally benefit in the future.

    Ironically, it was his service that gave his resume the weight it needed for a successful run and it is that service that could require him to declare a conflict on serious and significant matters.

  3. Donald Trump's Tiny Fingers says:

    Woah, hold on – a veteran’s court? Service is voluntary. You aren’t required to serve. Why should you get a special court when others don’t?

  4. Layla says:

    When did we become a society that gets to make up laws as we go along? This is not LEGAL. Who elected these people?

  5. Trumpsarump says:

    Men and women who have served our country may have “chosen” to do so and in their voluntary service has made this country safe, secure and great. We have a Drug Court for addicts which will take on veteran’s but doesn’t offer specific help for what a veteran may be going through. Those who have served deserve a second chance if they have fallen as a result of drug addiction or mental illness. Our Drug Court may not be perfect but it does work, a veterans court won’t be perfect but it will help. These programs are not usually intended for anyone who has committed a violent crime but rather for drug-related charges, You “sir” may not care about the veterans but I do hope that Flagler county shows it does. Thank you

  6. Brian Riehle says:

    @ Anonymous says….go do your homework…..DeSantis was am active duty Naval Officer who served in Iraq and GTMO, and most certainly is a Veteran.

  7. Marley says:

    @Donald Trump’s Tiny Fingers

    I suppose you could say the same thing about drug court, consuming drugs is voluntary too. Veterans court mainly pertains to those who suffer from invisible wounds, the ones that can make a person do irrational things due to being exposed to traumas while serving. That is not an excuse to go all Rambo on a town but you have to understand that people never come back the same from a war. So why throw a Veteran in the slammer for a long time when the courts can assist in rehabilition? Isn’t that what we do for drug addicts?, I’m not judging and I believe we as a society should help people with issues (mental/emotional) that the prison system can’t resolve. So, would you prefer to see a person who stepped up to defend this country get tossed into a flawed prison system over a legal-incident within reason of course? Or would you rather see that individual get the professional treatment that he or she needs? And prison is not the place to help someone with post traumatic stress from a combat zone heal.

  8. Algernon says:

    1) Josh Davis, these courts seem to work around the state. Why not here, regardless of when they’re proposed. Seems like a good ides.

    2) Trump’s Fingers – Some of the older veterans were called up in the draft. Service was NOT voluntary. Any why should vets get a special court? And special medical care (when it works) and a few other benefits? Because many put themselves in harm’s way,at risk of physical AND mental harm, voluntary or not, when called to serve their country.

    3) Layla – the people of counties who have veterans courts elected their commissioners and judges who set up the courts. And, legislatures make up lots of laws “as we go along”. Some are even good.

    4) And as for DeSantis’s service in the Navy Reserve – there are people in Arlington who were just Reservists in all the services. Don’t write them off so easily, even if you question this one.

  9. Steve Clair says:

    I’m glad to hear there is a movement to get it here, regardless of the timing of it.

    Let’s get it done, should be a no brainer!

    Over 22 veterans a day commit suicide, and yet to date less then 15% are offered services to deal with those invisible wounds,( although it has finally become a priority to provide better care for those returning or who have returned dealing with PTSD)

    Less then 7% of our population are/have served protecting the remaining 93% of our great nation

  10. Donald Trump's Tiny Fingers says:

    Two people appear in front of a judge, one with PTSD from combat that’s beating his wife, and the other with PTSD from years of childhood beatings that’s beating his wife. In both cases, the issues are due to untreated mental illness. Why should the vet get special consideration?

    The solution here isn’t a special court for vets, that’s just optics for political gain. Instead, maybe actually look at someone’s mental health? That’s one of the reasons why drug court works the way it does. How about a court for the mentally ill that specifies treatment as a condition to be satisfied?

  11. Layla says:

    Algernon: Laws like this come from the State Legislatures and NOT locally elected officials breaking the Sunshine Laws. This particular case is an example of why we HAVE Sunshine Laws. All citizens are held accountable under those laws and you make a very big mistake by giving anybody special status under these “local policies”.

    In this case, it was inappropriate for DeSantis staff to become involved in something like this. I would like to hear Rep. DeSantis tell us why he feels some citizens should be treated differently than others. I don’t believe he will make that statement.

  12. Heather says:

    Algernon : I didn’t say “he’s just a reservist” nor did I belittle, in any way his service or the service of any one who ever honorably wore the uniform.

    Brian : A veteran served. He serves. Yes, he was active duty and now he’s a reservists. He’s not resigned his commission nor has he retired so he is not a veteran, yet. I even provided a link for you. Just click. So simple.

  13. Heather says:

    Tiny Fingers and Layla.

    Veteran court is to address the specific needs of people who, on behalf of the American people, witnessed violence that would put the 99% of Americans who don’t serve into a fetal position in the corner of a padded room. Giving them access to battle specific mental health is the least we can do.

  14. Layla says:

    @ Heather. AGREE. That is what the VA are supposed to be doing. If they are not, why are we paying for a Veteran’s Administration? Ask your local veterans how many cannot even get an appointment to see a doctor at the VA or how long it takes them to be seen. Thousands have died waiting to be seen.

    And a court is supposed to improve this how? I commend your efforts but until the government agencies responsible for helping these men and women are reformed, you are just adding more bureaucratic red tape to the issue. These people are dying because Congress will not do its job.

  15. Dazed and Confused. says:

    Don’t let the word “reserves” fool you. He was in the Iraqi war. I was in the Navy Reserves in 1969 and did a tour in Vietnam. Haters gonna hate.

  16. Brian Riehle says:

    To Heather:
    Your link only says that DeSantis is currently in the Naval Reserve. It’s beyond comprehension that you would claim that anyone who served on active duty in Iraq since 9/11 is not a Veteran. If you know anyone who has served in the U.S. Military just ask them.

  17. Nancy N. says:

    A veteran is someone who has been discharged from the military. (This is the legal definition under Federal law.) Even though he’s not on active duty, as a Reservist he’s still technically a current service member and thus not a veteran, yet. He’ll become a veteran in the legal sense of the word after his discharge from the Reserves.

  18. Heather says:

    Dazed and Confused. Thank you for your service. I am a Navy vet and my husband is a Reservist forward deployed. Please tell me in what world is clarifying current military status categorized as “hating”

    Bill you can argue until your head pops off. Until a service member leaves the military (active or reserves) they aren’t veterans. They are service members. You are correct that he was forward deployed and he has all the honors and rights due him for that service and he continues to enjoy all rights and responsibilities due a reserve Sailor. Those rights and responsibilities are different than are mine as a Navy vet.

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