Sheriff skirts ethical principles with secret money

“Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.”

Lord John Acton

Over the past month, since Monday March 27th, St Johns County Sheriff David Shoar has attempted to conceal the names of contributors and the amounts of money that he solicited for his “Annual Awards Dinner” held on March 24, 2017 in the St Johns County Convention Center.

Historic City News became aware of irregularities with the event after local photojournalist Jeff Gray went to the Convention Center on that Friday night to silently protest the actions of the department with a single sign that said Michelle O’Connell and Andrea Sheldon were murdered.  Shoar had a personal connection to both homicide victims and his own appointed deputies are implicated in the shooting deaths.  Shoar has become infamous for his intractable position that his department investigated itself only to determine that they had done nothing wrong.

After Shoar issued Gray a verbal “trespass warning” from the lobby of the building, as well as the parking lot, Shoar and his 39-year-old undersheriff, local government attorney Matthew D. Cline, dispatched uniformed officers to evict Gray for the duration of the ceremony.  The entire episode was videotaped by Gray, with audio, and it contains disturbing evidence that both men overstated their capacity and the right of St Johns County citizens to visit the public areas of the public building, areas like the lobby.  Both men lied to Gray, repeatedly, stating that the county-owned and taxpayer-financed building was “private property”.  It is not.

Despite Chapter 112.313(6) F.S., Chapter 119, F.S., and Article I, Section 24 of the Florida Constitution, in response to our request for a copy of the executed lease agreement for the St Johns County Convention Center for the Sheriff’s Office Annual Awards dinner, the sheriff told Historic City News “We have no records responsive to your request.  Banquet was funded by private donations.”

Section 112.313(6) Florida Statutes prohibits public officers and employees, and local government attorneys from corruptly using or attempting to use their official positions or the resources thereof to obtain a special privilege or benefit for themselves or others.

  • Is the free rental of the meeting room for an “invitation only” banquet, without the requirement of a lease agreement, or an agreement to allow the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in county-owned facilities, considered a “special privilege or benefit”?

After receiving the “unresponsive response” from the sheriff’s office to our March 27th request, telling us only that the “banquet was funded by private donations”, we restated and resubmitted our records request on April 12th, asking the sheriff specifically to provide the names of the donors and amounts of the cash donations.  We also asked that the office provide the identity of the fiduciary who collected and disbursed the money.

Section 112.3149, Florida Statute prohibits elected officials like the sheriff from knowingly accepting an honorarium (cash or thing of value) from a

  • political committee
  • lobbyist within the past 12 months
  • partner, firm, employer, or principal of such a lobbyist
  • vendor doing business with the official’s agency

Would you say that accepting a $56,952 payment from a corporation that is controlled by the sheriff and funded by anonymous donations solicited by the sheriff, his agents, deputies, and employees, and used to produce the Sheriff’s Office Annual Awards Banquet constitutes “accepting an honorarium“?

Would you say that paying the cost of gourmet meals and cocktails constitutes “charitable activity” that qualifies as “tax deductible” under the US Tax Code?

Four Star Association Inc, currently holds tax exempt status under section 501(c)3 of the US Tax Code.  The officers of the Florida not-for-profit corporation are David B Shoar (Chairman); Mark E Simpson (Secretary); and former St Augustine City Manager, William B Harriss (Board Member).  As such, “donations” to the ostensibly “charitable organization” are tax deductible to the person or corporation that makes the donation.

Without 501(c)3 tax status, however, that money would not be tax deductible.  If that money were paid directly to the sheriff or the sheriff’s office, or directly to St Johns County to pay for the private party, it would not be tax deductible since it is not a “tax”.

According to tax returns filed by Simpson, who earned his required degree and became a Certified Public Accountant while employed by Shoar, the Association sold only $946.00 worth of tickets to the 2015 Annual Sheriff’s Office Awards Banquet.  That was the same year that Four Star Association paid the sheriff $56,952 to produce the banquet.  The difference, more than $56,000, was collected from sources and in amounts the sheriff is trying to hide.

  • Are the people behind the donations to Four Star Association the same people who donate to the sheriff’s political campaign, like Steven Berman?  Are they lobbyists or political fundraisers, like Marty Fiorentino?  Are they vendors of services to the sheriff’s office, like Matt Baker who benefits financially from the sheriff’s “favor”?

Since Neil Perry’s decision not to seek re-election in 2004, David Shoar continues to hold the infamous record of accepting more political campaign donations than any other elected official in the history of St Johns County.  A notorious distinction that earned him a front-page story in Folio Weekly magazine titled, “Choking on it”.  He even took money from “donors” in two re-election campaigns when he didn’t have an opponent.

Florida ethics codes can unwittingly invite people to play “the loophole game”. Since the codes are based on rules and not principles, people often begin looking for ways to “get around the rules” without technically violating the law.  Historic City News is watching Sheriff David Shoar, his accountant, and former boss play the loophole game at the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.

You would think that in light of recent criminal investigations of his mishandling of investigations and the use of undue influence over county employees, like the two District 23 Medical Examiners who have been found in violation of state law in connection with the Michelle O’Connell homicide, Sheriff Shoar, who claims complete “transparency” in the operation of the county’s largest law enforcement agency, would actually be transparent in disclosing who is giving him money and how much, lest he be suspected of using his political office to accept illegal bribes.

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