The case was filed against County Administrator Craig Coffey by Mark Richter, a former candidate for County Commission.
The county attorney's office uses a spreadsheet to keep track of them all: Complaints and suits filed against county officials by a small group of critics of the county government number 26, many of them repeating the same allegations.
They've overwhelmingly been dismissed, but fighting them costs the county money. And at an upcoming meeting, County Commissioners may decide whether to seek reimbursement for attorneys' fees for one of them, an Ethics Commission complaint filed by Mark Richter against County Administrator Craig Coffey.
County Attorney Al Hadeed — himself a target of four complaints, all of them dismissed — may present that option to the Board of County Commissioners at a meeting July 6. He's done so before. The county is seeking attorneys' fees in seven other cases.
At a County Commission meeting June 20, Hadeed laid out the rationale for seeking fees. He didn't refer specifically to the possibility of seeking fees in the Richter case against Coffey. Instead, he spoke about the purpose of seeking fees generally, pushing back against "commentary on social media" that compared the county's attempts to seek attorneys' fees to "SLAPPs" — an acronym which stands for "strategic lawsuit against public participation," the practice of suing people or organizations to silence their criticism, often by alleging defamation.
Th county's petitions for fees are not SLAPPs, Hadeed said.
"The fee petitions that we’re filing are in accordance with the state statutes, and in particular the rules of the Ethics Commission," he said. "Those rules are designed to compensate taxpayers for the cost of defending against complaints that have been filed despite the knowledge that the allegations in the complaint are false."
SLAPPs, on the other hand, are filed in court, not before bodies like the Ethics Commission or Elections Commission, and they're filed without merit and in order "to retaliate against the citizens for exercising their free speech," Hadeed said.
In the cases in which the county is seeking attorneys' fees, Hadeed said, the people making the complaints were making allegations they knew were false in order to harm officials' reputations. One allegation concerning two commissioners' Canvassing Board service was made in 12 separate complaints, he said.
"Knowingly filing false claims under oath with the intention to harm the reputation of local officials or otherwise disrupt the normal functioning of government — that's not a type of speech that's protected by the First Amendment," Hadeed said.
A government body's recourse when that happens is to file to recover attorney's fees, he said, and not doing so "just encourages more people to consume more of our resources and nitpick at us. "
"I am not going to, in representing the taxpayers and you, give in to people that pursue frivolous claims that consume taxpayer resources," Hadeed said to commissioners at the meeting. "This has been my consistent approach for as long as I’ve ever served this county. And it will continue to be my approach, because it is the right thing to do. It is the fair thing to do. It is not fair for taxpayers that are paying taxes to be having to involuntarily subsidize frivolous activities."
Who complained about whom?
Here's a cheat sheet on the status of complaints filed against county officials. Of the 26 complaints, 19 have been dismissed or investigated with no finding of fault, four are pending, and three resulted in a settlement ($2,500 against Commissioner Barbara Revels) or a fine ($250 each against County Commissioners Frank Meeker and Nate McLaughlin, over improper wording on a campaign ad disclaimer). Targets of the complaints have included County Administrator Craig Coffey and County Attorney Al Hadeed, plus the five county commissioners: Revels, Meeker, McLaughlin, Charles Ericksen and George Hanns. Data in the chart below was provided by the county attorney's office.
|Date Filed||Forum||Complainant||Respondent||Disposition||County seeking fees?|
|June 2014||Circuit Civil Court||Flagler - Palm Coast Watchdogs, LLC||Flagler County Commission||Dismissed Sept. 2014||Yes, awarded|
|Oct. 2014||State Attorney's Office||John Ruffalo, Dennis McDonald||Charles Ericksen||Investigation Concluded, March 2015|
|Oct. 2014||State Attorney's Office||John Ruffalo, Dennis McDonald||Nate McLaughlin||Investigation Concluded, March 2015|
|?????||Elections Commission||Mark Richter Sr.||Frank Meeker||Dismissed, Nov. 2015|
|Dec. 2014||Elections Commission||Mark Richter Sr.||Frank Meeker||Consent Order, June 2015; $250 civil penalty for improper wording on political disclaimer|
|Dec. 2014||Elections Commission||Mark Richter Sr.||Nate McLaughlin||Consent Order, June 2015; $250 civil penalty for improper wording on political disclaimer|
|Dec. 2014||Elections Commission||Mark Richter Jr.||Frank Meeker||Dismissed, Nov. 2015|
|Nov. 2014||Elections Commission||Mark Richter Jr.||Nate McLaughlin||Dismissed, Nov. 2015|
|Dec. 2014||Elections Commission||Kimberle Weeks||Charles Ericksen||Dismissed, April 2015|
|Dec. 2014||Elections Commission||Kimberle Weeks||George Hanns||Dismissed, April 2015|
|Dec. 2014||Elections Commission||Kimberle Weeks||Barbara Revels||Dismissed, April 2015|
|March 2016||Elections Commission||Dennis McDonald||Flagler County Commission||Pending|
|March 2016||Elections Commission||Dennis McDonald||Coffey||Pending|
|March 2016||Elections Commission||Dennis McDonald||Al Hadeed||Pending|
|Dec. 2014||Ethics Commission||Mark Richter Jr.||Nate McLaughlin||Dismissed, April 2016||Yes: pending|
|Dec. 2014||Ethics Commission||Mark Richter Jr.||Frank Meeker||Dismissed, April 2016||Yes: pending|
|Dec. 2014||Ethics Commission||Kimberle Weeks||Charles Ericksen||Dismissed, April 2016||Yes: pending|
|Dec. 2014||Ethics Commission||Kimberle Weeks||Al Hadeed||Dismissed, April 2016||Yes: pending|
|Spring 2014||Ethics Commission||Ray Stevens||Barbara Revels||Settled|
|June 2015||Ethics Commission||John Ruffalo||Barbara Revels||Pending|
|June 2015||Ethics Commission||John Ruffalo||Al Hadeed||Dismissed Oct. 2015||Yes: denied, county appealing|
|June 2015||Ethics Commission||Dennis McDonald||Nate McLaughlin||Dismissed Oct. 2015||Yes: denied, county appealing|
|Aug. 2015||Ethics Commission||Dennis McDonald||George Hanns||Dismissed, April 2016||Yes: pending|
|March 2016||Ethics Commission||Mark Richter Sr.||Craig Coffey||Dismissed, June 2016|
|Dec. 2014||Florida Bar||Kimberle Weeks||Al Hadeed||Dismissed, Feb. 2016|
|June 2015||Florida Bar||John Ruffalo||Al Hadeed||Dismissed, Feb. 2016|