Character Assassination by Hysterical Overreaction?


Update:  I tightened this up a little bit.  Clarified that the inflammatory language came from Shillinger’s letter, not from the press release.  The Citizen’s newest article says they made a public records request and Shillinger replied promptly.  Has the county really turned over a new leaf or do they only willingly answer public records requests they like?  I’ll let you know.  I resubmitted a public records request from last week that they ignored.  It was about emergency vehicles.

Anyone who pays attention to Keys news has already heard about the hullabaloo over at the Clerk’s office.  To summarize:

  • The county issued a press release claiming that Clerk of Court, Amy Heavilin was “deleting public records” and did not renew an “important contract”.
  • The KeyNoter/Reporter/ printed a story using the press release and some inflammatory comments made by county officials as the only source of information.  They’ve since updated it to mention that the State Attorney will be looking into the matter.
  • There’s also a story in Citizen/  They seem to have done a bit more research.  The article is more balanced with a non-hysterical tone.  They also made an attempt to get the other side of the story.

Buried toward the end of the updated story from the KeyNoter – after the alarming headline, after the mention of “criminal activity”, is this quote apparently from Bob Shillinger:

The e-mails, few[er] than 200 but some dating to 2014, included memos of understanding with other offices, “grants, the day-to-day work that the clerk performs in respect to county finances. [Heavilin] explained she was preparing to vacate the office, she was cleaning up. You can get rid of extra copies, duplicates. I don’t have any information that suggests she deleted originals.”

So Heavilin acknowledges deleting duplicate emails as part of her preparation for leaving office.  Is this illegal?  Immoral?  Unethical?

According to the article, Shillinger went on to say…

Still, he wrote in his letter to Heavilin that state law “requires a clerk to notify the [County Commission] in writing a reasonable time in advance of the destruction of records. The action is also potentially a violation of Florida public records law.”

Amazingly, a county official is actually telling the truth.  Sort of.  Here’s a link to the statute, which says…

28.31 Notice to county commissioners of intent to destroy; approval of board.The clerk of the circuit court shall notify the board of county commissioners of the clerk’s county in writing a reasonable time in advance of his or her intention to destroy such records and if for any reason the board of county commissioners of such county shall request the clerk to withhold destruction of such records the clerk shall refrain until such time as he or she obtains approval of such board.

But here’s what the general records guidance document has to say about duplicate records.

This retention applies to the agency’s record (master) copy of the records, those public records specifically designated by the custodian as the official record. The retention period for duplicates – copies of records that are not the official record of an agency – is always “Retain until obsolete, superseded, or administrative value is lost” (“OSA”) unless otherwise specified. Therefore, we are no longer including the OSA retention statement for duplicates in each retention item.

While I agree that possible destruction of public records is a serious matter, I have to question the county’s approach.  While I was at the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District (KLWTD), we had an unfortunate incident where a former employee used another employee’s password to improperly access KLWTD email.  We didn’t go running to the media with over-blown accusations.  We gathered the facts and worked with law enforcement.  Eventually the former employee plead “no contest” to the charges.  The situation was bad enough without trying it in the court of public opinion.

In this case, there does not appear to be any intentional wrong-doing.  It’s not clear there’s any wrong-doing at all.  According to the Citizen’s story…

The concerns have been mostly resolved but the county is still awaiting confirmation that emails have been retained somewhere in the clerk’s computer system, said County Attorney Bob Shillinger, who wrote the letter.

The way the county handled this gives the impression that they are targeting Heavilin for some reason.  And the obvious follow-up question would be why?  She lost her bid for re-election.  She’s out the door in a few months.  What does Shillinger or anyone else have to gain by encouraging the press to sensationalize the situation?

This is the same county government who allowed their chief executive to keep his job after a grand jury recommended that he be terminated.  Let’s say Heavilin really was unintentionally doing something wrong by deleting duplicate emails.  Is that worse than purchasing deeply discounted iPhones for cash stolen from the very agency you’re supposed to be overseeing?  Not only was the iPhone Bandit allowed to keep his job, he’s since been given multiple raises.  I can only conclude that if the iPhone Bandit deleted an email, he’d get a gold medal and a ticker-tape parade.  I guess the rules only apply when the county feels like applying them.

This is not to say that the State Attorney’s office shouldn’t get involved.  They absolutely should.  Any credible report that public records have been tampered with or destroyed should be investigated.  An investigation doesn’t automatically imply guilt, but the KeyNoter’s newspaper story sure did – until the very end.  But how many people read that far before making up their minds?

Heavilin is also “accused”, if you can call it that, of declining to renew a contract.  Here is what Shillinger had to say about that.

Shillinger said Heavilin also fired Lanigan & Associates, an accounting firm that helped the county prepare financial statements for the county. She wrote to John Keillor of Lanigan & Associates that her office would not renew the contract “for budget reasons as well as my loss in the primary election yesterday.”

In a Sept. 2 letter to Heavilin, Shillinger threatened to ask Gov. Rick Scott’s office to suspend Heavilin if the contract was not immediately renewed. He wrote that she “seriously jeopardized the county’s finances. Your arbitrary decision not to sign the engagement letter constitutes malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and/or incompetency” as defined by state law.

Well, as a long-time county official Shillinger should know all about seriously jeopardizing the county’s finances, arbitrary decisions, malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and/or incompetency.  The lack of self-awareness is mind-blowing.

Now, here’s what’s really interesting.  At Key West Hometown PAC’s candidate forum, Madok was asked about his “biggest tax saving idea”.  Madok immediately attacked Heavilin’s use of outside contractors.  He insisted that the work, specifically closing the books, could be done with the Clerk’s own employees.  So would Madok also be guilty of seriously jeopardizing the county’s finances, arbitrary decisions, malfeasance, blah-blah-blah-de-dah?  Here’s a link to the video.  The discussion starts at about 1:29.  Here’s a direct quote from Madok about using an outside firm to close the books.

That duty, which has always been done by county staff, has been farmed out to consultants.  You have paid over half a million dollars paying other people to do the work that staff is supposed to do.  The positions are there.  It’s not out-sourcing.  It’s double-sourcing.

Hmmm…well, it just so happens that the contract Shillinger is so upset about is for the firm that the Clerk’s office uses to close the books.  Here’s a link to the document provided by Shillinger himself, who promptly and cordially responded to my public records request.  It was a refreshing change from the standard rudeness and stonewalling I get from county staff.  Essentially, Heavilin is being accused of wrong-doing for implementing Madok’s money-saving idea.

If the county really is hot to investigate wrong-doing, they ought to start by looking within.  I’ve got a whole laundry list of issues that could stand to be investigated, but let’s just start with three.

  • They could look into why their capital projects consistently go way over budget.
  • They could look into the fact that Kevin Madok misled the public with his Emergency Services Surtax “white paper”.
  • They could look into the inaccurate animal control numbers in the 2015 State of the County report.  The iPhone Bandit said he would “look into” the high kill rate.  He never did.  His staff lied about the numbers instead.

All of these things jeopardize the county’s finances, and/or constitute arbitrary decisions, malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and/or incompetency.  So where’s the over-the-top correspondence?  Where’s the media?  Where’s the State Attorney?  I would think lying to the public and needlessly squandering their money is a whole lot worse than deleting some duplicate emails or implementing an opponent’s money-saving idea.

Unfortunately, Shillinger’s hysteria was not limited to accusatory letters and press releases.  He also had to make sure the taxpayers got hit with the shrapnel from this drama grenade.

He also wrote that because her “conduct has materially jeopardized the interests” of the County Commission, his office has to withdraw from eight lawsuits in which his office was representing the Clerk’s Office. “Please arrange to retain substitute counsel as soon as possible,” Shillinger wrote.

The county commission’s interests are compromised over deleted duplicate emails?  I would love it if Shillinger would walk us through his logic here.  It would almost be funny, except that you know who gets to pay for the “substitute” counsel?  Yup, the taxpayers.

I’m not saying Shillinger should let this slide, but it could have and should have been handled in a much more professional, measured and sober manner.  There’s nothing here to suggest any intentional wrong-doing on Heavilin’s part.  Shillinger said exactly that.  From the press release…

“It does not appear at this time that either of these situations were intentional violations,” Shillinger said.

I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on.  But it sure looks an awful lot like character assassination by hysterical overreaction.  The parties met on September 2 to discuss the issues.  Shillinger voiced his concerns and according to him, Heavilin has acted to address those concerns.  Ten days after the meeting, the county issued a press release, and the KeyNoter spun it for all it was worth.  To be fair, the press release itself isn’t that bad.  The most damaging quotes came from Shillinger’s inflammatory letter.  But the press release provided an opportunity for the accusatory letter to hit the media.

I’m not saying this matter should not have been made public.  I just question the manner in which it was made public.

Based on Shillinger’s own comments, I doubt that the State Attorney is going to find any evidence of wrong-doing.  Will anyone issue a press release about that?  Will it even show up in the newspaper?

This entry was posted in BOCC, Bubba System, Clerk of Court, Media, Monroe County. Bookmark the permalink.

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