Calling the protracted ethics case against him “terrorism,” “nonsense” and politically motivated “slime” by two former colleagues, Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre this morning delivered his most detailed—and impassioned—defense of himself since the case against him began in 2014.
His voice even keeled but pitched to the unmistakable timbre of outrage, the sheriff delivered an uninterrupted, seven-minute soliloquy on WNZF’s Free For All Friday with David Ayres in which he pledged to take his case all the way to the Florida Supreme Court and lost his re-election race if necessary, if that’s what it takes to clear his name.
Though he twice was willing to settle the case, the sheriff now speaks of being wronged by the commission and set-up by his ex-Undersheriff Rick Staly and ex-Finance Director Linda Bolante. His long speech was part of a 20-minute discussion Ayres prompted when he repeated the suggestion made in a News-Journal editorial, and echoed across the community, that Manfre would do well to settle the case once and for all and focus on his re-election. Manfre had at one time decided to do just that, only to reverse course and opt to fight on.
On Friday, he spoke as the lawyer he is, as if he were making opening arguments in the next phase of his legal campaign, which now goes before a court of appeal. The case against him began when Bolante charged that he misused department vehicles for personal use (a charge since dropped by the ethics commission), that he did not properly disclose a gift when he stayed at Staly’s cabin in Pigeon Forge, and that he inappropriately charged meals and alcohol to a department credit card. In every case, Manfre says he did not violate either a law or a policy, but was given bad advice by Bolante (who is also suing the sheriff in circuit court for wrongful termination).
Audio: Manfre’s Re-Opening Arguments[sc_embed_player_template1 fileurl=”https://flaglerlive.com/wp-content/uploads/manfre-wnzf-april-2016.mp3″]Problems hearing? Click here.
While the case against Manfre has been exhaustively, painfully reported at every twist, his appearance on WNZF this morning was especially notable on two counts: despite numerous statements and one particularly caustic and at times bitter news conference, he’d never spoken of the case at this length, combining his defense with a renewed sense of slash-and-burn attacks on his opponents, not least of them the ethics commission itself. He’s never used language as grave as he did today: “Myself or anyone succeeding me in the sheriff’s office or any political position,” Manfre said, “should not be subject to this kind of terrorism. It is—political terrorism.” (He did not explain how the case amounted to “terrorism” ).
Taking on the ethics commission made his threat to appeal the case to the supreme court potentially more consequential than the case’s more immediate effects on his reelection, because Manfre is now saying that the ethics commission’s methods are at fault. He’s not the first politician or public official to say so: those targeted with ethics complaints often do, especially when, despite being cleared, they must defend themselves at their own expense. But politicians rarely press their case past the commission to a court of appeal, let alone to the supreme court.
Should he do so, it doesn’t mean the court will hear his case. Having himself at least twice shown willingness to settle the case considerably weakens his chances of catching the high court’s attention despite now framing his strategy in a fight to clear his name: he may have felt wrong all along, but he didn’t show it all along, and his changes of heart along the way mirror those of the commission’s zigzagging fines.
The full, unedited seven minutes of his soliloquy is transcribed below. The full 20-minute audio of the segment with Ayres and Brian McMillan, the Observer’s editor, is also included.
As I’ve indicated, yeah, I was a prosecutor, I am a man of laws. I have never seen a more arbitrary process than this ethics commission. In my opinion, the whole thing is unconstitutional about how they go about it. We have seen a spate of ethics complaints bin this community. It’s being used as a political tool against people who oppose other people in our community, and particularly with me. This is an outrage that this has even gotten to this stage. And as I explained to people: this ethics commission is like a, is like, I decided we’re no longer going to go through the regular system when it comes to speed limits. We’ll decide when you are driving unlawfully, you’ll appear before the sheriff, who’ll then prosecute the case, and then I’ll decide how I’m going to fine you, and by the way, if you happen to be Republican and I’m a Democrat, I’m going to fine you more money, because that’s essentially what happened here. This is nonsense. If I did something wrong, and believe [me], I do things wrong, I make mistakes, like when we arrested this—Dakota Ward, the wrong person. I called him up personally and said, ‘I am sorry, we made a mistake.’ Our deputies make mistakes. I do, and I always own up to my mistakes.
I didn’t do anything wrong here. I was set up by two people, and they both should be ashamed of themselves to using the system for the wrong political purposes. Linda Bolante, who was, there are two people who I charged and trusted to give me advice. I’d not been in office for eight years. I’d been practicing law and doing development law. I came back to a system that I did not know how they were functioning, and asked their opinions about things. They’re not supposed to tell me things that get me in trouble for the wrong political purposes. Do you know Linda Bolante who was the complainant here did not even testify at the ethics commission, because her credibility was so damaged in a deposition. When she was asked, why did you not tell the sheriff—let me go back what happened. I walk in the door and I said to her, I’m going to sheriff’s conferences, in each of these instances I was going to sanctioned events. What is our procedure?
People say well, why don’t you remember from eight years ago. I don’t remember anything from eight years ago, and even if I did, I’m asking what the policy is that day. I hadn’t had a chance to review all the policies. We did eventually, and changed all these policies so no one, this would not happen again. What is the policy when I go away to the sheriffs’ conference in February? Put everything on your credit card, we’ll deduct it from your per diem, and if there’s a difference, we will let you know. And by the way this is done in multiple communities in the state. Daytona Shores has a policy that specifically says what I’ve just told you. There’s nothing illegal about that type of policy. So that’s what I did. We’re talking about $300, three days, three years ago.
That’s what we’re talking about here, and over a period of time, she did not keep track of what the reimbursements. That’s what she does, that’s what I paid her for, $93,000 a year, the former sheriff was paying her, and she did not tell me what was going on. Any time—it was four different times: February, May, July, and then twice in July. If I was doing something that was not within the policy, which there was no policy no matter what she says, there was no obvious policy in the agency, why don’t you just call me and tell me that? For $93,000. Sheriff, you’re not filling this form correctly. This is the way we do it here. When she was asked why didn’t you tell the sheriff, you know what her response was? He’s an attorney, should have known better. That is, that is clear evidence that she was setting that up. And any court of law, any real court of law or any prosecutor would never have gone down this road. And in fact when we first went to the [Florida Ethics Commission] advocate, they wanted to dismiss all the charges. They said, this is all nonsense, it’s going away. And then they were told for political reason, you’ve got to take something. So we said ok, just to get rid of this like everyone says settle it. I did try to settle this. We said OK, I’ll, you know, the car which, again turned out that they did find that it was OK for me to use the car, which everyone, every sheriff uses basically the same way, I said ok, I’ll do that. Next thing you know we go before the commission they say naaah, we’re not going to do that, and now it’s $7,500. And then it’s $19,000. Then it’s $6,000. Really? And the two things that they dismissed at the beginning, those are the two things that they found. This is ridiculous. This is just pulling things out of the air.
And the same thing with Mr. Staly [Manfre’s former undersheriff]. This is the third time he’s been involved in ethics. And for all his supporters out there, smell the roses with this guy. I was also bamboozled by his personality. He went after sheriff [Dennis] Barry when he was the Orange County undersheriff, for ethics charge. He was the one who approved Don Fleming’s membership at the Club at Hammock Beach., and he was the one who, my wife will tell you this, she came home, I kept on coming over and saying Rick wants to go to stupid cabin, you know, bothering me every single day about it. Why don’t we just do it. I’ve been to Pigeon Forge a bunch of times, I didn’t need to do up there. I was like just to keep him from bothering me I went up to this cabin for a couple of days. And one of the things that the News-Journal got wrong, the reason why I put down $44 is that’s what’s the instruction in the gift disclosure form said. If it’s a private residence, you value it at $44. I went to my attorney, said, do you agree with this? He said yes, it’s $44. That’s why I put it down.
“I will fight this to the end whether I win or lose the sheriff’s office, whether the public accepts that or not, this is my fundamental right.”
All of that testimony came out. And still, this ethics commission decided to levy a fine that is 10, 15 times the value of the benefit that I got. Now, you have Don Fleming, who for five years had a membership which I was a member, which cost me $20,000 a year to be a member there, for five years he had that membership, almost $45,000 in benefit, $20,000 spent in food and beverage. He got a $4,000 discount. And got a $500 fine? Really? Come on. This is nonsense. This is slime. This is a political tax because I’m a Democrat. If I was Republican this would have never gotten even the time of day and I would have never seen this.
Now, the News-Journal, which I will go talk to them, I have a right to defend myself. And by the way a lot of people who get hit with these ethics charges, one sheriff told me he’s had 40 different ethics complaints. Now, I happen to have some money so I can defend myself. It’s cost me close to $40,000 to do this. Most people can’t do that. Ethics commission comes in, I’ve got to throw up my hands because it’s going to cost me $10,000 or $20,000. I will defend myself to the end, regardless of the cost, because this is a fundamental issue. The ethics commission should not be the court of star chamber. Myself or anyone succeeding me in the sheriff’s office or any political position should not be subject to this kind of terrorism. It is—political terrorism. And I will fight this to the end whether I win or lose the sheriff’s office, whether the public accepts that or not, this is my fundamental right, and this is something that will follow me for ever. I’m an attorney. I have to deal with this as well as an attorney. No one gets to send me, mark up my reputation without me fighting for it. And anyone who doesn’t believe that’s my right, you are wrong.