Last Updated: 6:31 p.m.
An administrative law judge today found that Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre violated Florida’s ethics laws on two of three counts with regard to a series of allegations that the sheriff misused his position early in his current tenure.
The judge is recommending a fine of $6,800, substantially less than the Florida Ethics Commission advocate’s recommendation of $19,000. But the judge is also recommending a public reprimand and a public censure of Manfre by the ethics commission, at an open meeting. That, possibly more than the fine, would stain Manfre’s image with a taint of corruption in the thick of his re-election campaign while giving his opponents ammunition chambered and ready to fire.
In a startling pivot from previous vows to fight on, Manfre, in an statement issued at 6 p.m. today, said he will no longer fight the case. “As long as the ethics commission follows the ALJ’s current recommendation,” he said, referring to the Administrative Law Judge, “I have no intention of appealing this decision as it is now time to put this behind us and refocus on keeping our community safe and secure for all who live, work and vacation in Flagler County.”
Administrative Law Judge Suzanne van Wyk based her recommended order on proceedings before her, a hearing held on Dec. 3 in Tallahassee, following an earlier decision by the ethics commission in July that found him in violation of ethics laws on three counts. Manfre requested the hearing before van Wyk. Van Wyk’s recommendation must still be ratified by the ethics commission. In the meantime, Manfre has the right to appeal the recommendation to the District Court of Appeal before it ends up before the ethics commission.
Last week in a brief interview, Manfre said if the judgment came down against him, he would do just that: appeal. He has maintained that while he committed some misjudgments, he violated no policies or laws. He blamed the missteps on a lack of clarity in the sheriff’s office’s policies and procedures–or the lack of policies–while also blaming others at the agency for giving him poor counsel. He says he has since clarified or instituted new policies to ensure against such missteps.
“I have no intention of appealing this decision as it is now time to put this behind us,” Sheriff Manfre says.
Manfre, in the most contrite words he’s used so far in the ethics matter, apologized today to citizens and sheriff’s employees “for making poor decisions as it relates to these incidents in my first few months in office and ask for your forgiveness.” He said the judge’s recommendation shows there was never a corrupt intent in his misjudgments.
But the lawyer in him still could not resist a rejoinder: “This ethics process has been all over the place. Initially, the commission’s advocate recommended a negotiated agreement where I could have agreed to an improper car use and dismiss the other two allegations. A fine of $1,500 was suggested. Then we had the advocate’s most recent recommendation of three charges and a fine of $19,000. Now a recommendation is for the opposite: The ALJ has found violations of the issues they wanted to dismiss and found no violation in the use of the car. The ALJ’s recommendation is now a fine of $6,200 and public censure.”
The ethics case was filed by Linda Bolante, Manfre’s former finance director, after she was pushed out of the agency in 2013. Bolante has also filed a whistleblower suit in circuit court, which is ongoing.
Judge van Wyk found that Manfre misused agency-issued credit cards to pay for bills at hotels in Washington, D.C., on Marco Island and in Orlando, enabling him to exceed the per diem allowance for public officials or employees established by Florida law. “The totality of the evidence proved, clearly and convincingly, that [Manfre] acted with reasonable notice that his conduct was inconsistent with the proper performance of his public duties. There was no legitimate public purpose for charging meals exceeding the per diem rate,” the judge found, citing the various instances.
The judge, in language eviscerating Manfre’s version of events, also found that Manfre improperly accepted a gift from his then-Undersheriff Rick Staly when Manfre accepted to stay nights at Staly’s cabin in Tennessee. Manfre reported the gift eight months late, the judge found, and reported it as the equivalent of $44 a night, though it was valued at $430 a night. Manfre also admitted at the final hearing that he’d done so because, in his words–as quoted in the judge’s recommended order–“$44 sounds better than the $430, or a $1,200 gift.”
At that hearing Manfre had claimed that it had not been a reportable gift because he and his wife never stayed at the cabin on two consecutive nights, but rather “we left one day and came back again.”
The judge termed that a “newly-contrived theory,” declared Manfre’s explanation “simply not credible,” then suggested that Manfre lied under oath in what amounts to the most damaging revelation of the 29-page order: Manfre, the judge wrote, “provided no details as to which nights between May 3 and May 7, 2013, [Manfre] and his wife stayed in the cabin, or where they stayed when they were not in the cabin. Further, the disclosure form, which [Manfre] signed, under oath, indicated [Manfre] stayed three consecutive nights—May 3 to May 6, 2013. […] In the end, [Manfre] claimed that he filed the Form 9 on May 27, 2014, only ‘because it became an issue’ and ‘in an abundance of caution.’ Apparently, not even [Manfre] believed the disclosure that he made under oath was accurate.”
For all that, the judge’s recommendation is not an unmitigated setback for Manfre. The judge found that one of the charges against him, that he misused sheriff’s office vehicles by taking them out of state, does not stand. The ethics commission advocate “did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that [Manfre] acted with corrupt intent with regard to use of the FCSO vehicles.” The judge also found that in the case of one hotel bill (in Tallahassee in May 2014), it was clear that Manfre intended to settle the charges on his personal card, but that due to a clerical error, the charge was placed on his agency-issued card.