The Big Story / Sufagate



      It keeps getting worse for the county, and our tax dollars, regarding the disastrous lawsuit our county commissioners are losing against Stand Up For Animals.  History: Four years ago, George Neugent initiated an attack on Marathon’s animal shelter, getting then-county Clerk Danny Kolhage to freeze SUFA’s operating accounts, putting them out of business.

     They then did a Draconian, utterly incorrect “audit” of SUFA and broke the law by releasing the preliminary, one-sided version to a generally gullible press, before SUFA’s director, Linda Gottwald, had any opportunity to respond. While she was being slandered in the corporate media, they sicced the State Attorney and FDLE investigators on her, holding felony charges over her head for a year.

     Worst of all, in the ensuing lawsuit between SUFA and the county, the county included SUFA’s entire board of directors and accountant. Volunteer animal lovers were subjected to the weight of the state against them, costing them thousands in legal fees while the county tried to use them to pressure Linda.

     The upshot has been that the county has lost at every turn. Listen to a list of defeats that makes our old Duck Tours fiasco seem innocent:

1. The State attorney found no fault with SUFA, recognizing that the county had an independent contractor relation with the nonprofit that did not justify their audit.

2. FDLE, despite strong prodding, found nothing with which to charge Linda.

3. An appellate court ruled that the freezing of SUFA’s money was illegal, and released the funds.

4. A forensic auditor the county hired at great cost failed to find anything they could use against SUFA.

5. Judge Audlin dismissed the county’s attempt to include SUFA’s board in their lawsuit.

6. Judge Audlin dismissed the county’s second attempt to include the board, with prejudice.

7. George Nugent’s deposition before SUFA is already public record, and it will play very poorly in court and in any defense against an official ethics charge against him.

     I don’t know why the county did not back off after the second dismissal and George’s deposition. They are so clearly going to continue losing this case. Do their attorneys so love the job security that our tax dollars are paying for? Such advocates have a responsibility to follow orders, but they also have to give their employers, the commissioners, frank advice about likely legal outcomes and consequences.

     By not settling, they have had to see county Administrator Roman Gastesi get deposed. Roman, of cheap iPhone and Grand Jury charges fame. I can’t wait to see how he justifies his actions towards SUFA, especially his misdemeanor release of the preliminary audit (he and Danny escaped official investigation only because of the short statute of limitations for such crimes).

     Frankly, I do not look forward to the upcoming deposition of Danny Kolhage. I have had my differences with him in the past, but I think he is working hard for us as a commissioner. I will not take joy in seeing his hitherto sterling reputation ruined by his involvement in this tragic case.

     I am not an official lawyer, so I can’t advise anyone else what to do, but I can state that if I were on SUFA’s board, I would have a cause of action to file another pro se lawsuit against my government. The county is flagrantly guilty of malicious prosecution, with their persistent refiling after rejection giving a rare slam dunk to our legal system.

     I have tried to help the county out at every turn, but they have left me only the option of reporting worse and worse news for them. My original reporting tried to explain to them the illegal nature of the audit, and clear factual errors within it, based on my professional experience as a business professor and service on the editorial board of a major accounting journal.

     I attended a commission meeting to speak against their squandering my tax money on the forensic accountant, saying it would not only be futile, but was part of an increasingly unjust persecution. After the first dismissal of the inclusion of the Board in the lawsuit, I met with my commissioner to explain how both federal and state laws protect nonprofit board members from exactly such forms of liability.

     In my harsh criticism over the years, no one has raised a single word in the county’s defense. When Roman’s deposition becomes public record, I will report on his unimaginable defenses. And I’ll hope to report that the county has come to their senses and settled.

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