In its latest move to continue a long investigation of the local advertising company Waverly Media, the Volusia County Council on Thursday officially named its Waverly investigator an “inspector general” and approved a third spending increment of $50,000, all as the cost of the case climbed past $100,000.
The “inspector general” label for lawyer Jon Kaney, the council’s hired investigator in the Waverly case, was meant to secure a public-records exemption for his records in the case, which is still facing challenges in court.
“I don’t think anybody up here intended for the investigation to be disclosed before it was completed,” said County Councilman Doug Daniels, who first proposed the investigation last year. “That would be absolutely stupid. Nobody does anything that way. That would go against everything we’re familiar with. We clearly intended for Mr. Kaney to have that position. Everything will become public after, so there’s going to be no harm in waiting.”
The Waverly investigation involves illegal political campaign contributions worth tens of thousands of dollars from the bus-bench advertising company, which has put candidate ads on benches across Volusia and its cities. Waverly and its principals have faced a State Attorney’s Office investigation over political advertising the company donated to candidates and contributions from false names meant to skirt campaign-finance limits. A former Waverly Media employee, Jim Brown, who has since died, was sentenced to probation as a result of that investigation.
Councilman Pat Patterson said Thursday the council’s investigation, while lengthy, is “one of those issues we just need to get through” to “prove to the people that we do have open, fair and honest elections.”
Several people Kaney has tried to interview in the investigation, including Waverly’s Jim Sotolongo (who was convicted in a recent federal mortgage-fraud case), Ramara Garrett (who was acquitted in the same case), and 2012 council candidates Ted Doran and Justin Kennedy, contested it in court. Doran, also an attorney, hit Kaney with a public records request on the case so far. Kaney argued the records were incomplete and exempt. A judge has yet to rule on their arguments.
“We’ve had a claim in this investigation against someone that was very, very serious … and then ultimately totally rebutted,” Kaney told the council Thursday without going into the allegation itself. “And that’s the whole (point) of keeping an investigation closed until it’s complete. It would’ve been a major-league headline, and someone could have lost their job over it. And it was totally false.”
State law allows ongoing inspector generals’ reports to be exempt from Florida’s broad public records law. Doran argued Thursday that Kaney’s records still should be public. “Naming a can of spinach ‘peaches’ doesn’t change the contents,” he said. “It’s still spinach.” He said Kaney has been Volusia’s “special counsel,” not inspector general, all along, including on his court filings. The council’s vote Thursday, Doran said, was its attempt to “clean it up after the fact.”
County Chair Jason Davis and Councilman Josh Wagner both voted against the inspector general label. Wagner said he was uncomfortable with it at such a late stage in the investigation. Only Davis voted against the latest $50,000 approval because he had concerns about the costs piling up. The county manager’s independent spending authority is limited to $50,000, so each time the investigation cost hits that increment, the council has to approve an additional $50,000. The next threshold is $150,000.
Kaney and fellow private attorney Noah McKinnon are charging the county $290 per hour in the case. Kaney estimated when the investigation began that it probably wouldn’t cost more than $100,000, but that was before the legal challenges were filed.
At-large Councilwoman Joyce Cusack went along with the vote, but with her own concerns about the rising cost. “We are continuing to spend, and we have no idea as to where we’re going, and how much money it will cost us,” she said. “But if the council’s ready to move in that direction, I will not be the holdup in that.”
Kaney told her the only holdup in the investigation is the witnesses who have challenged it.
“They wanted to be political leaders of this county,” he said. “Now they don’t want to talk. So they’re holding you up, Mrs. Cusack. … They’re costing you money.”
A ruling in the court case between Kaney and Doran and the others is expected in mid-August. Kennedy is running for office again this year, challenging Deb Denys for the council’s District 3 seat. He has said the investigation is a politically motivated “witch hunt,” that he already cooperated with the State Attorney’s Office, and he doesn’t have any information Kaney doesn’t already know. He called the investigation “corruption at its finest” Thursday.
“Today would’ve been another day for someone with some leadership on that council to stand up and say enough is enough,” Kennedy said. “But the council lacks leadership, and the council authorized another $50,000.” He added it’s not too late for Kaney to “simply call me on the phone as I’ve said all along. It would save a bundle.”