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Palm Coast Thursday, Jun. 23, 2016 4 years ago

County may seek attorneys' fees in dismissed Ethics Commission case

The case was filed against County Administrator Craig Coffey by Mark Richter, a former candidate for County Commission.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

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 FiledForumComplainantRespondentDispositionCounty seeking fees?
June 2014Circuit Civil CourtFlagler - Palm Coast Watchdogs, LLCFlagler County CommissionDismissed Sept. 2014Yes, awarded
Oct. 2014State Attorney's OfficeJohn Ruffalo, Dennis McDonaldCharles EricksenInvestigation Concluded, March 2015
Oct. 2014State Attorney's OfficeJohn Ruffalo, Dennis McDonaldNate McLaughlinInvestigation Concluded, March 2015 
????? Elections CommissionMark Richter Sr.Frank MeekerDismissed, Nov. 2015
Dec. 2014Elections CommissionMark Richter Sr.Frank MeekerConsent Order, June 2015; $250 civil penalty for improper wording on political disclaimer
Dec. 2014Elections CommissionMark Richter Sr.Nate McLaughlinConsent Order, June 2015; $250 civil penalty for improper wording on political disclaimer
Dec. 2014Elections CommissionMark Richter Jr.Frank MeekerDismissed, Nov. 2015
Nov. 2014Elections CommissionMark Richter Jr.Nate McLaughlinDismissed, Nov. 2015
Dec. 2014Elections CommissionKimberle WeeksCharles EricksenDismissed, April 2015
Dec. 2014Elections CommissionKimberle WeeksGeorge HannsDismissed, April 2015
Dec. 2014Elections CommissionKimberle WeeksBarbara RevelsDismissed, April 2015
March 2016Elections CommissionDennis McDonaldFlagler County CommissionPending
March 2016Elections CommissionDennis McDonaldCoffeyPending
March 2016Elections CommissionDennis McDonaldAl HadeedPending
Dec. 2014Ethics CommissionMark Richter Jr.Nate McLaughlinDismissed, April 2016Yes: pending
Dec. 2014Ethics Commission Mark Richter Jr.Frank MeekerDismissed, April 2016Yes: pending
Dec. 2014Ethics Commission Kimberle WeeksCharles EricksenDismissed, April 2016Yes: pending
Dec. 2014Ethics Commission Kimberle WeeksAl HadeedDismissed, April 2016Yes: pending
Spring 2014Ethics Commission Ray StevensBarbara RevelsSettled
June 2015Ethics Commission John RuffaloBarbara RevelsPending
June 2015Ethics Commission John RuffaloAl HadeedDismissed Oct. 2015Yes: denied, county appealing
June 2015Ethics Commission Dennis McDonaldNate McLaughlinDismissed Oct. 2015Yes: denied, county appealing
Aug. 2015Ethics Commission Dennis McDonaldGeorge HannsDismissed, April 2016Yes: pending
March 2016Ethics Commission Mark Richter Sr.Craig CoffeyDismissed, June 2016
Dec. 2014Florida BarKimberle WeeksAl HadeedDismissed, Feb. 2016
June 2015Florida BarJohn RuffaloAl HadeedDismissed, Feb. 2016


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