The Florida Elections Commission at its November meeting voted to dismiss three elections violation complaints against Flagler County Commissioners Frank Meeker and Nate McLaughlin, even though it found probable cause on some violations by both commissioners.
It is up to the commission’s discretion to dismiss complaints even if it finds probable cause if, by law, “it determines that the public interest would not be served by proceeding further.” In such cases, the commission must provide a written order explaining its decision. That order has been written but not yet signed by the panel’s chairman, an elections commission official said Tuesday, so it’s not yet available.
All three complaints were filed by Mark Richter Jr., son of the individual of the same name who ran for a county commission seat against McLaughlin in 2014, and has filed to run again in 2016, for the seat held by Charlie Ericksen. The three complaints were part of nearly two dozen complaints and lawsuits filed by a small group of people against county officials in the past 15 months. The complaint filers include the two Richters, Dennis McDonald and John Ruffalo—both directors of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies, the extre-right pressure group—and Kimberle Weeks, the former supervisor of elections currently under felony indictment. Those complaints have been filed at the elections commission, the Florida Ethics Commission, the Florida bar, as well as in circuit court and at the State Attorney’s office.
Hard as it’s been to keep up with the filings and the dismissals, about half the complaints so far have been dismissed.
In late October, the ethics commission dismissed complaints against County Attorney Al Hadeed and McLaughlin and a Florida Division of Elections opinion declared the removal of County Commissioner George Hanns from the county canvassing board last fall improper. In April, the ethics commission threw out three complaints by Weeks against various commissioners, calling the complaints specious and speculative. In March, a circuit court judge ordered a pressure group associated with the Reagan Republicans and its attorney to pay the county $3,100 in legal fees after tossing out a suit the court termed frivolous.
In the complaints just dismissed by the elections commission, Meeker faced a total of 16 counts between two complaints, according to minutes of the elections commission’s Nov. 17 meeting, including 12 counts about his campaign finance reports, two counts relating to the wording of a political ad, one count relating to another individual’s allegedly improper support of the Meeker campaign (Meeker had mistakenly attributed a supportive quote to fellow-Commissioner George Hanns), and a count on other minor violations found meritless.
The commission found probable cause only in one count, the matter of wording on a political ad, and even then, by a bare margin: the commission voted 3-2 to find probable cause, and to dismiss the count.
McLaughlin faced eight counts. The commission found probable cause against McLaughlin on six counts relating to his reporting of in-kind contributions or loans to his campaign, but dismissed all six, and found no probable cause on a count of financially helping another candidate or committing an error in the wording of campaign advertising.
The commission took eight votes in the counts against the two commissioners. All but two votes were unanimous.
In all cases at the elections commission, Meeker and McLaughlin have had to defend themselves, at their own expense. That’s not the case with complaints filed against them and other commissioners at the Florida Ethics Commission. Since those complaints refer to alleged acts commissioners committed through the performance of their official duties, the county was authorized to foot the bill of their defense, and has.
But it has not done so submissively. In early November, the county commission approved responding to certain frivolous complaints by pursuing complainers for attorneys’ fees. In mid-November, the county filed one such “petition for fees” against McDonald. On Nov. 25, it filed another petition against Ruffalo. Both petition argue that McDonald and Ruffalo knowingly and maliciously filed their complaints against commissioners to damage their reputation, based on a collection of unsubstantiated claims that they knew to be false.
One of Ruffalo’s complaints against Hadeed was that Hadeed had “intimidated” the county commission as he briefed commissioners on one of the complaints against him, an allegation the attorney found risible. “If I did that, I’d be gone,” Hadeed said, noting that Ruffalo may have mistaken “his command of the law” for intimidation.