The Florida Ethics Commission this morning approved a $4,000 fine against former Flagler County Commission candidate Dennis McDonald over financial disclosure violations, after harshly criticizing McDonald for “thumbing his nose” at the commission, disrespecting the court system, and having “complete disregard for law.”
It’s a steep fine, especially for the type of violation it addresses: McDonald misstated or mis-reported assets on his 2011 and 2013 disclosure forms. His wife, School Board member Janet McDonald, had similar issues, but she ended up with a $500 fine, because she cooperated with the ethics commission throughout. McDonald did not.
The three-year-old case was initially filed as a complaint by then-County Commissioner Frank Meeker, who died
The 4-3 vote wasn’t without a silver lining for McDonald: the initial order called for a $10,000 fine, what would have been the largest such fine against a candidate for office or an elected official for the type of violation McDonald committed. Several commissioners wanted that steep fine.
“It seems what we have here, someone just totally thumbing their nose at this whole process.” Commissioner William Meggs said. “I don’t know if we need to send a message or not. But I believe this commission should be taken seriously and this person did not, did not respect the courts, did not respect this commission, and had a wonderful opportunity apparently at one point in time to resolve this, chose not to. So I’m for sending him a message.”
McDonald “failed to participate in any of the proceedings, and the advocate submitted admissions to the respondent which he failed to address or failed to respond to,” Elizabeth Miller, the ethics commission advocate, said, explaining the recommended order for a $10,000 fine. “Due to the circumstances of this particular case I would ask that a civil penalty of $5,000 per allegation for a total of $10,000 be imposed or be recommended by the commission. Also, a public censure and reprimand.”
Miller said McDonald “was very reluctant to participate or actually did not participate in anything, and in fact made the whole circumstances a little bit difficult, I would say, and I think in this matter his thumbing his nose, if you will, at the whole process, warrants a higher penalty.”
But one of the commissioners, Joanne Leznoff of Fernandina Beach, though the fine excessive. “I do think that the way in which an individual responds to the process gives us insight as to the motivations behind the behavior, and it is clear that this respondent had complete disregard for law and for the process,” Leznoff said. “Having said that, I think that we have dealt with matters that were far more severe with respect to their ethical violations and the nature of those ethical violations have received a far less penalty. So while I do think there should be an acknowledgement of his lack of participation in the penalty, I think this may be excessive.”
She motioned to set the fine at $4,000–or $2,000 for each of the violations.
“I thought it was a bit high,” Commissioner F. Shields McManus said of the $10,000 fine. “Remember, the first time it was $250, and that was a settlement, was it not? And this commission rejected that, respectfully, and then after that apparently he defaulted. So there hasn’t been a total disregard from day one. He was involved and he did have a lawyer, right?”
“He did not have a lawyer,” Miller said. “He said that he did, and he told the investigator that he did, he sent a letter to the investigator that he would not cooperate with the investigator because he had a lawyer, but that lawyer would never file a notice of appearance.”
“I think we rejected the stipulation, so he did have a chance, he presented something if I’m not mistaken, but we didn’t think it was sufficient,” Commissioner Antonio Carvajal said. “Even at that point we thought there was a need for a higher statement, there wasn’t complete cooperation back then.”
The commission chairman called for a vote. Leznoff’s motion carried, 4-3.
McDonald was also assessed $234 in attorney’s fees. It’s not over for him: the ethics order also calls for censure and a reprimand by the governor.
Asked about the ethics commissioners’ statements, McDonald responded in a text: “The Ethics Commission violates every Floridians Amendment rights everyday by not allowing both parties involved the right to speak in their defense. They are the Banana Republic of Tallahassee.” The record, however, indicates that the commission advocate extended McDonald numerous opportunities to address the matter, and the commission itself was surprised this morning when it was told that neither McDonald nor an attorney representing him were in the room.
“They are the Banana Republic of Tallahassee,” McDonald said.