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School Board’s Conklin “Willfully” Failed to File Disclosure, But Ethics Panel Stops Short of Removing Her From Office

| September 14, 2016

colleen conklin sands ethics

Colleen Conklin, right, just won her fifth term to the Flagler County School Board, defeating Jason Sands by a wide margin in last August’s election. (© FlaglerLive)

Colleen Conklin is the second-longest serving elected official in Flagler County, having won her first election to the school board in 2000, and her fifth just last month. She may be very lucky that she will get to fulfill that term.

Six times in her 16 years on the board Conklin was late turning in a required but brief financial disclosure form, according to an investigation by the Florida Commission on Ethics. One of those times cost her a $1,500 fine last year. Conklin appealed the fine, but the appeal was rejected in December.

Last Friday, the same case cost her yet another embarrassment: being found by the ethics commission to have “willfully failed” to file the form when she should have—a finding that could have led to Conklin’s removal from office. In fact, that section of law, which the Legislature added to Florida’s books just last year, leaves no room for excuses or leniency: “if the commission determines that the person willfully failed to file a full and public disclosure of financial interests, the commission shall enter an order recommending that the officer or employee be removed from his or her public office or public employment.”

It is shall, not may. Yet Conklin today may consider herself lucky: Because Conklin “acknowledged her failure to disclose and took steps to remedy the failure,” the ethics commission’s order, signed and filed today (Sept. 14), states, “the Commission will take no further action in this matter unless [Conklin] requests a public hearing.”

The commission, it appears, is not prepared to apply the letter of the new law as it may have consequences its drafters did not intend–punishing with the drastic act of removal from office even those officials who have complied with the filing requirements, however messily. The Conklin case exposes what may have been a well-intentioned law aimed at incorrigibly contemptuous public officials, but a poorly written one.

“My ego would like to appeal it,” Conklin said this afternoon. “My sensibility says, let it go and move on. I’m 16 years on the school board and I don’t have anything like this to blemish my record, and it’s embarrassing and it’s disappointing.”

A new law and its odd interpretation take a school board member by surprise.

Conklin’s words belie her ire at the ethics commission. She thought when she’d paid the $1,500 fine last year that the matter was over. It wasn’t. She hadn’t taken into account the new twist in the law, intended to ensure that elected officials don’t intentionally ignore or abuse the disclosure system. She says she did neither. She acknowledges the delays (her list of excuses read like any gifted student’s attempt to explain why a term paper was not turned in—“documents had crossed in the mail,” husband hadn’t mailed the form, she thought the commission had received the form, she mistook October for September, and so on) but said in the end all paperwork was turned in and the fine paid, and none of the substance of the disclosure was ever in question.

But the new law required of the ethics commission that “regardless of whether the fine imposed was paid or collected,” the commission was to launch an investigation “to determine whether the person’s failure to file is willful.” That results in yet another finding by the commission’s advocate, requiring respondents like Conklin to defend themselves. (See the investigation report here.)

For the failure to be willful, the commission has to prove five points: that the official in question is holding office, that the official “failed or refused to file” a disclosure statement, that the official received notice from the commission about the failure, that the maximum fine was run-up, and that (in an obvious tautology) the failure to file is willful. The commission’s advocate concluded that all five elements were met, and that Conklin’s prior history of being late on filing the document proves “she was no stranger to the process.” (She was late 14 days in 2006, one day in 2004, four days in 2005, three days in 2008, six days in 2009, and 60 days in 2013.)

Conklin says three of the five elements were met, but that she demonstrably paid the fine, and that she did not abstain from filing willfully. She traveled to Tallahassee last Friday and appeared before the full commission to make her case.

“When I went I obviously shared my side and specifically reviewed the five elements,” Conklin said, “and I was disappointed that the commission’s decision was in favor of the advocate, when the law clearly states that all five elements have to be evident, and in my case only three of the five were evident. And actually two other members of the commission attempted to have the whole thing thrown out, because their impression of the law was that this statute was created for those individuals who absolutely refuse to file their financial disclosure, and it did not pertain to the situation I was in. You had to prove that the respondent failed or refuse to file a full public disclosure. That’s not true. I filed it. Late, but it was filed. And also you had to prove that the failure to file was willful. It was absolutely not willful.”

In documents submitted to the commission and in her interview this afternoon, Conklin said she took full responsibility for late filings and acknowledged a tendency to procrastinate. She also was aware that she may have dodged a very damaging bullet, misfired though it may have been.

“They’ve decided not to take any action but the whole thing was very, very odd and quite strange,” Conklin said. “And of course I took full responsibility. At the end of the day it’s my own fault. The document was filed late. I paid the penalty, and the whole thing has been quite embarrassing. I’m really looking forward to moving on.”

She has not yet decided whether to do so or to file an appeal, though she’s not sure an appeal would do more than remove a stain on her 16-year record.

The Florida Ethics Commission’s Advocate’s Recommendation, Upheld

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13 Responses for “School Board’s Conklin “Willfully” Failed to File Disclosure, But Ethics Panel Stops Short of Removing Her From Office”

  1. woodchuck says:

    Just another case of “I am above the law” once again ignored.The Manfre defence,she should be removed ASAP.

  2. Robert says:

    Gee, another elected official who interprets the law his/her way and is not held accountable. This disgrace has come to Flagler County.

  3. tpen says:

    REALLY???? She’s been doing this for 16 years, last year she was fined for not doing it, and then she doesn’t submit them again??? Does she not own a calendar or doesn’t know how to use the calendar on the smartphone that I’m sure she owns? Let’s get real here, she needs to go. This behavior wouldn’t be tolerated by a student, so why are we permitting it from an adult? The committee should have recommended her being removed. If she conveniently can’t remember or chooses NOT to remember this, what else does she NOT remember. Remove her!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Seems to be the ETHICS COMMISSION doesn’t exercise following the law and may be dismissing complaints when they shouldn’t be by doing what they want instead of doing what they should. I am sorry by Conklin should be removed from office with her years of experience knowing the ropes and for being late so many times in the past filing required documents. The ethics commission needs to be investigated. They don’t seem to be good stewards of our precious tax dollars.

  5. A Little Common Sense Please says:

    I’d file an ethics complaint on her about this, but I’m afraid the county would try to sue me for their legal fees if my complaint was dismissed.

  6. Algernon says:

    Really? The first three commenters here are fairly harsh. Ms. Conklin’s defense here was that if five elements must exist and there were only three, then she did not show willful intent and meet the hurdle the law was designed to discover. That’s not making up her own rules, that fits the law. As Flagler Live said, the law is meant for situations much much worse than Ms. Conklin’s admittedly sloppy bookkeeping.

    Ms. Conklin is an inspiration to many in our community, so I’m pleased the committee understood her intent and value to our school board.

  7. Karnack says:

    Are these the same Public Advocates that will be investigating the PLOTS of Mr. Andy Dance and the School Boards LACK of ACTION.
    If so ; The Governor should remove every elected and appointed official involved for Neglect of Duty.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Why is the ethics commission not following the law and making up their own rules as they go? Seems like the ethics commission is a waste of money and should be investigated. Those that have failed to do their jobs honorably should be fined, removed and have their Florida Bar license revoked. If we can’t trust these individuals, who can we trust? Shameful that this elected official has willfully filed late so many times and this behavior is allowed to continue. Send her back to school. If a student conducted themselves in this fashion they would fail—this school board member has failed!

  9. Diane says:

    She needed to go before she was elected again .! Palm Coast voters that voted her in again shame on you ! She needs to go for sure …..why does she get a pass ?

  10. rst says:

    We deserve EXACTLY what we vote for; smh…

  11. Anonymous says:

    Please investigate Flaglerlive and explain how and why Conklin as a person we should trust as an elected official has claimed her home at 229 Ocean Palm Drive in Flagler County to be a value of $300,000 on her filed Form 6 when the 2015 Flagler County Property Appraiser’s “Just (Market) Value” of the real estate in 2015 is $181,426 when the instructions on the Form 6 on page 4 state that the value of real property are to be valued at market value unless a more accurate appraisal of its fair market value is available. ” Real property may be valued at its market value for tax purposes, unless a more accurate appraisal of its fair market
    value is available”. It seems to me it would be appropriate for an ethics complaint to be filed against this elected official for misleading her constituents. This elected official may not be competent to be a school board member if she can’t read and follow instructions. The ethics commission has a responsibility to follow the law and if the law warranted her to be removed from office for her actions then so be it. How can we ever trust elected officials who conduct themselves in this fashion. If they will fabricate or lie about something like this, what do they do about everything else? What is even more disturbing is Conklin appears to just shrug this off.

  12. algernon says:

    To the last Anonymous with a complaint about Fair Market Value and Just Value. They are two different numbers. What a willing buyer would pay a willing seller is the Fair Market Value. The Just Value is different, and as calculated by the property appraiser, is a base for taxation. Most sellers want, and get, much more than the Just Value. Ask an experienced Realtor to explain the difference to you.

    You do Ms. Conklin a great injustice by suggesting that she is claiming an improper value. If the fair market value is $300,000, then that’s the right answer for that question. That is not misleading. The lower tax based Just Value is not what the question seeks. I suggest that you might apologize to Ms. Conklin for suggesting, in this case, that she was not doing something wrong, when it doesn’t appear that she was.

  13. Jarrod says:

    Having known Colleen for quite some time, I can tell you she has nothing to hide financially. She is a blue collar American, working her tail off day in, and day out. You all need to stop being so judge mental, and realize that people make mistakes. I’m sure you are all perfect. Smh

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