In June, Florida Politics did an investigative series on what has been going on in Nassau County government.
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read it, it includes concealing public records, meeting outside the sunshine, a commissioner living outside of his district and a failed extortion attempt that is costing its taxpayers nearly $400,000 and climbing.
All of this stems from or is tied to the case, Rayonier Inc. and Raydient LLC v. Nassau County.
But while all eyes have been focused on the election and then Thanksgiving, there were major developments in the case.
The first is regarding Nassau County Attorney Mike Mullin’s breach of fiduciary duty — the judge denied Nassau County’s motion to dismiss. Based on evidence in the court record, the judge found Mullin’s conduct so egregious that he denied him sovereign immunity.
“A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter must not afterward represent another person in the same or a substantially related matter in which that person’s interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client,” the judge said in an Oct. 2 ruling.
“As a former client, Mullin has a fiduciary relationship with Plaintiffs and their allegations can fairly be read to include claims that Mullin has disclosed confidential information learned in connection with his former representation and taken an adverse position to his former clients on matters that are the same or substantially similar.
He concludes: “… on the whole, the allegations can be read … to state that Defendant Mullin has breached, and will continue in the future to breach, his fiduciary duties to Plaintiff out of spite, with the subjective intent to do wrong, and a conscious and intentional indifference to the consequences of his actions knowing they would likely damage Plaintiff’s property interests.”
In late November, Raydient filed a deposition collected from Taco Pope, who has worked in multiple planning roles within Nassau County before becoming assistant county manager and now the county manager.
Pope’s deposition was a treasure trove of information, including the destruction of text messages about the East Nassau Community Planning Area. But perhaps the biggest revelation in the deposition is that Pope was called to the State Attorney’s Office early in November. There, he met with the chief investigator for the 4th Judicial Circuit to discuss a late-2018 meeting that has become significant to the Raydient lawsuit against the county.
The Nov. 6, 2018, meeting included County Attorney Mike Mullin, Mullin’s Administrative Assistant Susan Gilbert, then-County Office of Management and Budget Director Justin Stankiewicz and Pope, among others, who all met to “talk about The Enclave trail,” which “immediately turned to the public records request.”
Multiple depositions gathered in the case state that Stankiewicz brought up group text messages on his phone that would fall under the Raydient public records request. They also confirm that Mullin admitted to deleting the messages and that he had a setting on his phone that deleted his text messages after 30 days.
Stankiewicz was fired by Mullin five or six weeks after the meeting. Stankiewicz said in his grievance papers that “the county had terminated him in retaliation for his refusal to obey Mullin’s direction on Nov. 6, 2018, to delete text messages that were responsive to Raydient’s public records request.”
In his deposition, Pope confirmed he had deleted texts and emails that involved county business from his personal phone, stating “I mean, again — I mean, I know it’s a big deal now, but at the time, this whole thing was inconsequential to me.”
Pope also testified that he agreed with statements made by Shanea Jones (now Shanea Jones Stankiewicz), the county manager at the time, during her deposition, that Raydient’s stewardship district had the power to build parks and recreation but wasn’t obligated to do so.
“For instance, he said publicly many times that the Stewardship District is responsible for financing the public facilities. We told him numerous times, and I told commissioners separately numerous times, that I didn’t agree with that,” Jones had said. “The Stewardship District is a financing mechanism. It’s not responsible. It just has the ability to generate funds.”
Pope said he agreed with Shanea “that the black-and-white language says that it’s a power that’s afforded to the Stewardship District.” He also said that Mullin would not accurately relay the discussions that were going on regarding Raydient, specifically when it came to positions held by county staff such as Jones and Pope.
Asked about Mullin’s misrepresentation of discussions staff were having about Raydient to commissioners, Pope said staff at times disagreed with Mullin’s position but that Mullin would tell commissioners that they were behind him.
On Nov. 23, Raydient filed a motion requesting the court grant summary judgment in their favor and enter an order that declares “that the County unlawfully refused to permit public records to be inspected or copied by 1) allowing text messages responsive to Plaintiffs’ public records request to be destroyed or deleted prior to the applicable retention schedule; 2) Misrepresenting to Plaintiffs that all responsive records had been located and produced when, in fact, they knew that additional responsive records may not have been produced; 3) Failing to produce a portion of the public records responsive to the request until after the County was sued by Plaintiffs, and 4) Failing to maintain adequate policies and procedures to preserve and maintain text messages responsive to public records requests that prevent their deletion or destruction by the County Attorney and individual County Commissioners.”
The order also asks that the court declare “that the County violated Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law pursuant to Section 286.011, Florida Statutes,” and asks the court to direct the county to “require all County officials and employees who use electronic devices to communicate regarding matters of official business to conduct those communications only on devices that record those communications on servers directly accessible by the County’s public records custodians …” and enjoin the “County’s Board of County Commissioners from meeting and discussing County business outside of the sunshine without public notice.”
All of this is to say that while it has been shady business as usual in Nassau County, perhaps, and hopefully, we’ll see a resolution in the Raydient and Nassau County case and the dispute finally put to bed.