Fliers landing in Walton County mailboxes this week have been disseminating less than truthful information regarding an ethics complaint lodged against incumbent commission candidate Cecelia Jones.
The mailings, sent out by a shadowy electioneering communications organization known as Voters Response, calls out Danny Glidewell, Jones’ opponent in Tuesday’s primary, for smearing her by discussing the ethics complaint.
“Ethics Investigation Completed. No Probable Cause Found,” the flier’s message screams. “Stop the Smear Danny.”
The message is accompanied on the flier by an attorney’s recommendation that the Florida Commission on Ethics find no probable cause to uphold several claims brought against Jones by two Walton County residents.
But the fact is nothing has been decided in regard to the now-consolidated complaints of Art Miller and Lynda Morse. The Ethics Commission will decide at a Sept. 7 hearing in Tallahassee whether or not Jones committed several alleged violations.
“The case will only be determined after the commission makes a probable cause determination,” Ethics Commission investigator Beau Jackson told Miller via email in response to an inquiry sent after the Voters Response flier went out.
While neither Jones nor Voters Response Chairman David Ramba returned phone calls Friday, it appears the sliver of truth the “no probable cause found” declaration is based upon is a recommendation from Attorney Melody Hadley that the commission find no probable cause to move ahead with its inquiry of Jones.
Hadley is an assistant attorney general and advocate for the Florida Commission on Ethics. It is an advocate’s job to act in something of a prosecutorial role when a probable cause hearing is held, according to Kerrie Stillman, the spokeswoman for the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Her recommendation, however, is simply that, Stillman said.
“The Ethics Commission makes the final decision. They are not bound by the advocate’s recommendation at all,” Stillman said.
The allegations Miller made against Jones last October state she:
Misused her office to influence the outcome of a whistleblower lawsuit. Misused her office to benefit her family. Misused her office to influence an election and commit Sunshine Law violations. Misrepresented official financial disclosures. Failed to complete or provided erroneous information on ex parte communication forms. Misused her office by posting false information on social media. Jackson, the FEC investigator, spent eight months investigating the allegations against Jones before deciding a probable cause hearing was warranted.
“These don’t go to a probable cause hearing unless they think there is substantial probable cause,” Miller said. “That’s not saying she’s guilty, it’s just saying the investigator thinks there’s enough there to move forward.”
If the Ethics Commission agrees with Hedley that no probable cause exists, the case against Jones will be dismissed. If it finds probable cause does exist the complaint could go to an administrative law judge for a hearing, or Jones could decide to settle with the Commission Advocate.
All probable cause hearings are held in private, Stillman confirmed.
Glidewell, Jones’ opponent, said he knew very little about the workings of the Florida Commission on Ethics before the Voters Response flyers started arriving, but he says its clear the group wasn’t providing accurate information to the public. He blamed Jones, rather than the electioneering communications organization, for the ad's content.
“That flier she sent was an attempt to deceive the voters. That’s wrong,” he said. “She knows she’s got to go to a hearing. She needs to tell the truth.”
Voters Response has been funneling thousands of dollars into the two Walton County Commission races that will be decided Tuesday, with much of the money spent on mailers carrying negative messages about Glidewell and fellow candidate Bill Fletcher.
Three other political action committees have been supplying money to Voters Response since July 17. Those are Greater Florida Leadership Group, Citizens for Principled Leadership and Voters for Economic Growth.
The three together have thus far dumped approximately $119,000 into Voters Response coffers.
A second mailer sent out this week claims Glidewell “and his millionaire backers” should apologize to Jones for even discussing the upcoming Ethics Commission hearing.
“Lawyers say ‘no probable cause’ for ethics violations,” the mailing claims.