A Valuable Lesson for Flagler County

(In the interest of complete disclosure – I publicly and unequivocally support Chris Yates’ candidacy for the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office.  Having worked with, and directly supervised, Chris for many years I believe he has the personal and professional attributes one expects from a law enforcement executive.  He has a strength of character and outstanding leadership skills – honed on the street during actual emergencies – and has demonstrated solid performance and sound decision-making under stress.  He has earned my respect and admiration.

I know that Chris respects the importance of honoring the public trust – and avoiding even the appearance of impropriety by those who have sworn to uphold and enforce the law fairly, firmly and without bias or favor.  He lives those ethics every day.  That’s why I support his run for Sheriff of Flagler County, and why you should to.)

Now, here’s my take on the painful personal and professional train wreck of Flagler County Sheriff James Manfre:

If someone compiled a naughty list of the Most Ethically Challenged Politicians in Central Florida, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office would consistently headline a long and distinguished directory of miscreants.

From former Sheriff Don Fleming accepting a private club membership that would have cost you or I tens of thousands of dollars (if we could qualify at all) and his horrific interference in a traffic homicide case, to Sheriff Jim Manfre’s extensive catalog of ethical lapses – something’s amiss in Flagler County.

I’m not saying this is anything new – after all, this is Florida – arguably the most corrupt state in the union and a place where pirates and politicians have plundered the natural resources and looted the public booty since old’ Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and his buccaneers helped himself to Spanish treasure here.

What consistently amazes me is the depth to which certain people will go to use their elected or appointed position to their own advantage – and that of their friends – and this phenomenon is almost exclusively limited to politicians and their uber-wealthy buddies and campaign contributors who can well-afford to pay their own way.

I mean, you almost never hear of an elected Robin Hood, making greasy moves and underhanded backroom deals to steal public funds to feed the homeless or clean-up the numerous environmental disasters that continue to plague our beautiful state (read the Indian River, Mosquito lagoon, Lake Okeechobee, etc., etc.).  Weird, right?

On the extremely off-chance that one of these ethically challenged “public servants” are caught with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar – rather than be taken into the criminal justice system and sent to prison where they belong – these lowlifes are (sometimes) held accountable by Florida’s Ethics Commission.

This virtually toothless watchdog and quasi-judicial board is comprised of nine appointed commissioners (five of which are, interestingly enough, appointed by the Governor) who operate ostensibly autonomous with their own investigators, rules of evidence, policies, and judicial procedures to ensure the accused receives due process.

Let’s face it – public officials are subject to salacious rumors, baseless accusations and outright lies by their political opponents and misguided or mentally ill constituents bent on making trouble.  I’ve experienced this myself, and in most cases, it is difficult if not impossible to have unsupported claims investigated independently because no individual or agency wants to get involved.

We have a saying in law enforcement – “You can’t pick up a turd by the clean end” – and most times it’s best to simply walk away from someone else’s political mess.

I’m not saying it’s right – but it is reality.

During my public life I was once responsible for investigating and formulating a complaint to the Florida Ethics Commission regarding the unethical conduct of a high ranking appointed public official.

In what became a very public and drawn-out process, my complaint and supporting evidence were independently investigated by the Commission who found probable cause to pursue charges in the matter.   However, at the end of the day, the subject of the complaint was found not guilty by a State Administrative Law Judge – which shocked the Ethics Commission’s advocate (an attorney who “tried” the case on behalf of the State of Florida) perhaps more than it did me – and I was stunned speechless.  I still am.

You see, not many of these cases make it to a formal hearing – and those that do usually end in conviction based upon the independent nature of the Commission’s fact-finding efforts and the usually bald-faced nature of the violations which make it that far.  That is why the Flagler County cases have been so intriguing to me.

As a career law enforcement officer I have closely followed Sheriff Manfre’s ongoing ethical problems, which ultimately resulted in the Ethics Commission unanimously recommending a $6,200 fine and public reprimand and censure (a public shaming, of sorts, which normally results in the resignation of the exposed official).

In most counties in the State of Florida, the Sheriff serves as the chief law enforcement officer and has powers well in excess of those at the municipal level of government.  In fact, the Governor alone can remove a sitting Sheriff from office.

As a result, elected Sheriff’s and their deputies have a duty to those they serve, and the law enforcement community, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.  The public trust is a precious gift – and once violated – it is nearly impossible to regain.  Without it, law enforcement officers and agencies are simply incapable of performing their sworn responsibilities to protect and serve – and we all know it.

Professional law enforcement officers also know the penalties if we choose to break the rules for our personal enrichment.

Let’s face it, even a rookie cop knows that you don’t use your assigned vehicle for personal vacation trips to North Carolina and New Orleans.  Every public executive knows that you don’t use a government issued purchasing card for cocktails, meals, and the personal entertainment of your family and friends.  And everyone knows – especially an attorney and officer of the court – that you don’t have the luxury of telling three different stories under oath while attempting to explain away why you didn’t report the gift of a swank mountain getaway. . .

In the case of Sheriff Manfre, he failed to uphold the professional standards of the law enforcement service, and the ethical standards of his high office.  What I find most disturbing is Manfre’s basic defense that the rules don’t apply to him, and later, his aporetic argument that the penalty he received for violating the public trust was out of line with the sanctions imposed on his predecessor.

In response to a recent Daytona Beach News-Journal article by Jennifer Edwards-Park, Sheriff Manfre makes several pathetic counter-accusations against his former undersheriff, now political opponent, Rick Staley.

According to Sheriff Manfre, Staley has several ethically challenged skeletons in his own closet – to include allegations of misuse of public office while employed by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office – and allegations that Staley personally recommended former Sheriff Don Flemming’s now infamous membership at the Hammock Beach Club while he served as Director of Security there.

In addition, Manfre alludes that it was Staley – as the owner of the Smokey Mountain cabin – who intentionally inflated the price of the accommodations as a means of embarrassing his boss.

Unfortunately, Sheriff Manfre would have us believe that he is either a fool or a dupe – neither of which are personality traits one wants in a law enforcement executive.  I mean, if true, why would Manfre have hired someone with Staley’s alleged background as his most trusted adviser and senior commander?

We have also learned that Staley has played politics in the past, and even after getting his fingers burned, couldn’t seem to stop touching the furnace.

Clearly there is enough blame to go around, but at the end of the day only Jim Manfre holds the title of Sheriff of Flagler County.  It’s time for him to stop these feeble challenges and accept the fact that he has as much chance of being re-elected sheriff as I do.

In my view, his self-serving finger pointing and endless legal challenges to the recommendations of the Ethics Commission expose a disgusting – and disturbing – lack of personal character and judgment.

The fact is, Sheriff Manfre should accept personal responsibility for his reprehensible conduct.  Governor Scott should relieve Manfre of command, stop this embarrassing sideshow, and return honor and leadership to the good men and women of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office.

Most important, the voters of Flagler County should take away from this embarrassing debacle a valuable lesson in the importance of personal integrity, honor, and professional ethics in your next sheriff.






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