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Court denies Harris’ motion for contempt

Jun 29th, 2012 | 0

By DOTTY NIST

Suzanne Harris’ motion for contempt alleging that Scott Brannon violated a final judgment of the court has been denied by Walton County Circuit Judge David Green.

Brannon is chairman of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC).

Green issued his ruling on June 22.

The final judgment had been agreed to by Harris and the county to settle a previous lawsuit filed by Harris against the county in 2009 in which Green had presided. That lawsuit had involved allegations of violations by the county in connection with public records requests made by Harris. Brannon had also been a county commissioner at the time that Harris and the county had signed the agreement that settled the 2009 lawsuit.

In approving the final judgment, the county had agreed that the BCC and “each individual commissioner shall use only his or her official e-mail account when transacting official business.”

In her motion for contempt and order to show cause filed in April 2012, Harris had maintained that Brannon had violated the terms of the judgment by using his personal e-mail account to conduct county business.

Harris and her attorney had presented 18 documents in support of their assertion of contempt, 17 of which were admitted in evidence. Among the arguments of the county and its legal representation was that Harris was not entitled to relief because she had “aided and abetted” the behavior that was the subject of her complaint by corresponding with Brannon through his personal e-mail account. The county presented 22 documents in support of that contention, all of which were received in evidence.

At a June 12 hearing on the lawsuit, Harris’ attorney State Representative Matt Gaetz explained that his client was not seeking any punitive measures for the prior emails, only a $500-per-email fine for future emails in violation of the final judgment. Harris also sought reimbursement of her attorney fees and costs associated with her lawsuit and a requirement for Brannon to attend a half-day training session on the Sunshine Law.

Gaetz called Brannon to testify at the hearing. He was asked what the retention standards were for emails. Brannon responded that he was not sure, but that he did not “destroy any or get rid of any.”

Gaetz brought up emails from Brannon’s personal email account provided as evidence, including ones in which Brannon asked his assistant to transfer funds for the construction of a fire department sign, made a recommendation for an appointment to the Walton County Economic Development Council, asked a county staff member to order him a gavel, and offered to “rein in” the chamber of commerce director and as BCC chairman “lay out” expectations for her.

Gaetz asked Brannon if he had been told at the time of the final judgment that the agreement had imposed stricter requirements on the county than public records law. Brannon said he did not specifically remember being advised of that. He said he had thought he was complying with the final judgment by copying emails sent from his personal account to an official county account so that they would appear on the county server, thus placing the documents in the public record. Brannon also said he did not believe he had conducted county business through his personal email account.

Bill and Tim Warner of the Warner Law Firm represented Walton County at the hearing. Tim Warner called Suzanne Harris to testify. She stated that Brannon had asked her to use his aol.com email account in communicating with him and that she had done so. She explained that she was told that the email account was one of his county commissioner email addresses and that emails sent there went through the county server. Harris said that “toward the end” of the time in which she was communicating with Brannon she had questioned whether the aol.com email address was official—but had continued to use it after being told by the FBI to continue exchanging emails with Brannon in connection with an investigation.

Bill Warner made the argument that none of the emails in evidence showed the transaction of county business, although some of the communications may have been related and connected with county business. Warner maintained that, under Florida law, no individual commissioner has the ability to transact county business. Instead county business may only be transacted by the county commission as a whole in public session, he argued.

In his June 22 ruling, Judge Green analyzed the documents received in evidence. He noted that 15 of the 17 emails were sent by Brannon through email accounts other than his official county email account, while one was sent by Commissioner Cecilia Jones. The email sent by Jones had simply forwarded to the county attorney a copy of a document already on Jones’ official email account, Green observed. The other email, he explained, was one sent by Brannon’s administrative assistant on her official county email account to another county employee and contained an email from Brannon’s private email account…..

Read the full story in the June 28, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.

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