Must-read: ‘Heardophobes’ spin Ethics complaint results

Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard

This detailed investigative probe by local attorney and civic activist Ginny Sherlock is an important must-read:

Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard has been cleared of all but one of the allegations made against her in a complaint filed by John McAuliffe, a Palm City political operative associated with Commissioner Heard’s political rival, Barbara Clowdus, and the cowardly ding-dong “DBell” who uses anonymous e-mails to spread Clowdus’ manure.Clowdus, publisher of a free local tabloid, and her faux journalist alter ego, Nancy Smith, reported that Commissioner Heard acknowledged failing to report property she owns in North Carolina on her financial disclosure forms and that the Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause to conclude that the commissioner violated disclosure laws.  

Lois Lame failed to report that the Ethics Commission dismissed all other claims by McAuliffe, accepting the Commission Advocate’s recommendations finding no probable cause to conclude that Commissioner Heard violated the law in any other respect and that McAuliffe failed to make factual allegations to support any other possible violations of the law.

In his thrice-amended complaint, McAuliffe accused Commissioner Heard of (1) failing to include properties in North Carolina among assets reported on her financial disclosure forms; (2) underestimating the value of her Rocky Point home; (3) underestimating the value of farmland she owns in Illinois; (4) failing to disclose the value of a private aircraft owned by her husband; (5) accepting a watercolor painting valued at $425.00 as a gift from 1000 Friends of Florida; (6) staying in expensive resort and luxury hotels when traveling on official business for the County and using valet parking rather than self-parking; (7) falsely submitting vouchers for payment of travel expenses to which she was not entitled; and (8) participating in a County Commission executive session to discuss legal fees to be recovered from 1000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance after an unsuccessful Comp Plan amendment challenge and then voting to accept less than the amount McAuliffe thought the citizen advocacy organizations should have paid.

In her Determination of Investigative Jurisdiction and Order to Investigate, the Ethics Commission’s executive director concluded that Commissioner Heard used a reasonable basis for estimating the value of her home by noting on her disclosure form that she reported the value established by the County Property Appraiser; that the Commissioner’s disclosures regarding the Illinois property were in compliance with the law; that disclosure of assets owned solely by a spouse, such as the airplane owned by Commissioner Heard’s husband (the owner actually is her father-in-law); that allegations that she was “less than frugal” while traveling on County business did not describe conduct inconsistent with proper performance of the commissioner’s duties or “corrupt intent”; and that participation in votes on legal fees in the 1000 Friends/Conservation Alliance litigation did not produce any special private gain or loss to the commissioner or to any relative or business associate.

The executive director explained that “conclusory” statements without a factual basis and “doubt or skepticism about the accuracy or veracity of a filing, a value figure, or an asset description is not enough to trigger the Commission’s investigative jurisdiction.”  

Although most of the allegations were thrown out, an investigation was ordered with respect to the allegations related to the North Carolina property, expenses associated with business travel, and the watercolor painting presented by 1000 Friends of Florida (which Commissioner Heard promptly disclosed on a timely filed gift disclosure report).

The investigator’s report confirmed that Commissioner Heard failed to report two lots she purchased in North Carolina in 2007 for $35,000.00 each.  Commissioner Heard told the investigator that she completes her own disclosure form each year, using the previous year’s form as a guide.  The lots were not reported on the form that was filed the first year after the purchase and were not picked up on subsequent forms.  The commissioner acknowledged the error, filed an amended disclosure form and agreed to pay a fine of $400.00 for each year she failed to report the North Carolina properties from 2008 through 2013.

The investigation found that the County expense reports that McAuliffe complained Commissioner Heard “falsified” were prepared not by the commissioner but by her executive aide, who produced receipts and other documentation confirming that the expenses were properly reported.  

Finally, the investigator reported that the watercolor painting Commissioner Heard received from 1000 Friends of Florida was awarded to the commissioner as the recipient of 1000 Friends’ 2011 Community Steward Award.  The investigator noted that 1000 Friends of Florida has presented a similar painting in lieu of a plaque or trophy to winners of the Community Steward Award each year since 1987. 

After reviewing the investigator’s report, the Commission Advocate recommended that the Ethics Commission find no probable cause for any of the allegations except those related to the North Carolina property disclosure, which were resolved by a “pre-probable cause stipulation” in which Commissioner Heard acknowledged the violation, agreed to correct it and to pay a fine before the Commission on Ethics even considered the issue of probable cause.

The Commission on Ethics accepted the stipulation and Advocate’s recommendations last month, closing out the file.  The Complaint, executive director’s Determination and Order to Investigate, Report of Investigation, Advocate’s Recommendation and Commission Press Release on the final action are now public records and can be viewed at www.ethics.state.fl.us.

McAuliffe, Clowdus and Smith are now attempting to “spin” the results to suit their own agenda, grousing that the Ethics Commission failed to properly investigate and act upon the allegations against Commissioner Heard. 

Apparently, the three Heardophobes were too busy trying to turn their Ethics Commission lemons into lemonade to report that one of McAuliffe’s cohorts entered into a Consent Order with the Florida Elections Commission acknowledging violations of Florida elections laws.

In response to a complaint filed by Donna Melzer, Ron Wardell and Martin County Leadership Council, Inc., admitted that they failed to properly register and falsely reported or deliberately failed to include information in one or more campaign reports as required by law.  Martin County Leadership Council, Inc., was a contributor to McAuliffe’s Martin County Residents for Tax Fairness, funneling at least $23,000.00 in anonymous contributions into a stunningly unsuccessful effort to unseat Commissioners Heard and Ed Fielding in the 2014 County Commission campaigns. 

Unlike Commissioner Heard, Wardell and Martin County Leadership Council failed to file corrected reports after acknowledging violation of the law and paying a $400.00 fine, continuing to conceal the source(s) of the thousands of dollars Wardell and his PAC poured into McAuliffe’s PAC (which paid $1,200.00 to the attorney who defended Wardell and Martin County Leadership Council in the Elections Commission complaint).  

Clowdus and Smith also missed the scoop on the $675.00 fine assessed against Martin County School Board member Mike DiTerlizzi for failing to timely file his most recent financial disclosure form.

Commissioner Sarah Heard acknowledged that she made a mistake in failing to report the two $35,000 out-of-state lots on her annual disclosure forms.  She admitted the error, corrected it, and has accepted responsibility.

In the meantime, one of McAuliffe’s campaign benefactors, the Martin County Leadership Council operated by Ron Wardell, acknowledged violating the law but refused to file corrected reports and still hides the identities of donors who used an unregistered PAC to direct at least $23,000 to Martin County Citizens for Tax Fairness.  McAuliffe’s PAC paid $1,500 in fines for late filing campaign finance reports that would have disclosed the names of contributors before the primary election, including entities associated with the Lake Point rockpit that filed a SLAPP suit against Maggy Hurchalla and which is owned in part by George Lindemann, Jr., who served time in federal prison for having his show horse electrocuted for insurance proceeds.

As campaign season gets underway, when reading articles and columns about ethics complaints and campaign tactics, please consider the source.

 
 

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