No criminal charges will be brought against Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh based on a lengthy investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into accusations that Singh had falsified documents given to county auditors.
The State Attorney’s Office for Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit, which has been reviewing a 10-count charge sent to it by state law enforcement officials in January, announced Friday it is declining to pursue any criminal prosecutions because “there is insufficient evidence to establish criminal activity beyond a reasonable doubt.”
A ten-page memorandum submitted Thursday by Assistant State Attorneys Melissa Clark and Andrew Urbanak, however, did not exactly exonerate Singh from accusations that have haunted him for several years, that he had presented altered documents on travel expenses to a county audit of his department. The prosecutors simply concluded they could not successfully pursue criminal charges.
Singh issued a statement Friday declaring the allegations were based on “bogus claims in a frivolous lawsuit, there was never any merit or proof to back up the charges.”
“From the beginning, I’ve said that this lawsuit was financially and politically motivated,” Singh said in the statement.
Singh is seeking reelection but is being challenged in the August 18 Democratic primary by former state Rep. Amy Mercado and businessman Khalid Muneer. Both are running on platforms seeking to restore integrity to the office, but neither has bludgeoned Singh regarding the ongoing investigations.
Nonetheless, both spoke out quickly Friday morning.
“Regardless of today’s announcements/news, it is clear that Singh has engaged in unethical behavior at our property owners’ expense,” Mercado wrote in a text to Florida Politics. “My priority is to restore trust and faith in the OCPA office, and to ensure our property owners’ hard earned tax dollars are used ethically an efficiently.”
“Perception is reality. Not enough evidence does not mean it did not happen. It means it was not proven,” Muneer texted. “We must still bring integrity back to the office. There should be no improprieties in the property appraiser’s office or perception of them. It should be above reproach, and he is not.”
The State Attorney’s Office’s six-month review of the FDLE report appeared to focus largely on the validity of documents Singh’s office had presented to the Orange County Comptroller during Property Appraiser office audits.
Singh has been accused of much more in two whistle-blower lawsuits filed in 2018, including that he had manipulated finances, reports and audits to cover up unethical and illegal activities, and led a hostile work environment that included sexual and racial harassment.
In addition, Singh has been battling for years with some of the county’s biggest property owners, particularly with Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and other major tourist destinations, over his appraisals of what their properties are worth.
The state prosecutors focused on allegations of manipulated finances, reports, and audits, and concluded there was no clear evidence of criminal violation.
They also noted, however, that the activities could have been undertaken to protect Singh from political criticism. The prosecutors concluded that wasn’t their business.
“It is clear that OCPA did not follow protocol when it submitted altered documents to the OCCO for purposes of the 2015 audit. Halikman testified that the proper method to clarify or supplement a justification for an expense is not to alter the original document, but rather to attach a “sticky note” or to provide additional documentation with the original expense documentation. The act, however, of submitting altered documents in Counts I-X, did not rise to the level of a crime in this case because there is no evidence of a “benefit” to Rick Singh as a result of those alterations,” the prosecutors wrote in their memo.
“If the original documents had been submitted they would have passed the audit and none of these documents would have created a financial penalty against Singh. The only other alleged benefit Singh received from these alterations was avoiding scrutiny or political criticism/consequences. There are multiple issues with proceeding under that theory. Legally, it is a stretch that avoiding political criticism/consequences would constitute a violation of the Official Misconduct statute. There is no legal precedent for the theory that avoiding political criticism/consequences under this factual scenario is unlawful,” the prosecutors wrote.