This past week there has been a very interesting front page news story in Jacksonville about a state attorney investigator's "conflict of interest" and the resulting actions taken by State Attorney Angela Corey and Chief Assistant Dan McCarthy.
Here's the scoop: as the Florida Times Union reported, a state attorney's office investigator, Scott Hughes, accessed a confidential law enforcement database to investigate the father of a local high school football player. Hughes apparently is the offensive coordinator of a rival high school, and he was trying to determine if the player's father had residency in the county where the boy was playing. Interestingly, Hughes was a Lieutenant with the Sheriff's Office until 2009 when he was hired by Corey.
But the good news, as I will explain, is Angela Corey's office has quickly admitted the conflict of interest or at least the perception of one, has admonished the investigator, and has warned everyone else in the office of the penalties if they do the same. (read the press release here).
But I bring this up here because in our recently settled lawsuit with the JSO in Rich v. City of Jacksonville, one of the main points of contention during discovery was whether the investigating officer, Robert Hinson, had a conflict of interest and should have recused himself. Our contention in the lawsuit was that the city had no legitimate governmental interest in breaching my First Amendment right to anonymity by identifying the First Baptist blogger (me) through subpoena power, and that Hinson's conflict of interest as a member, employee, and leader of FBC Jax clouded his judgment and that he was using his investigatory powers to run an errand for his church.
Over and over again in deposition, from every JSO official we deposed, it was stated there was ZERO conflict of interest. That because Detective Hinson was assigned to religious institutions, that there was no conflict of interest in him on his own initiative, with no input from his superiors, deciding to "investigate" a blog critical of his own church and pastor and employer, and issue investigative subpoenas from Comcast and Google to get my name, and then destroying the paperwork all with no input from superiors.
However, as it came out finally in deposition, the conflict of interest Hinson had was much deeper than we ever knew or was reported in the media. He was not just a member of the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, and not just an employee of the church, not just a tither to the church as he admitted - but he was also a deacon, and believe it or not...he was actually a member of the discipline committee that was formed through a November 2007 bylaw change pushed through after my blog started and that was tasked with enforcing church discipline on wayward members like myself. Detective Hinson was actually Deacon Hinson, and was appointed by church leaders sometime in 2008 to be on the very discipline committee whose formation I heavily criticized on this blog (here and here).
To make matters even worse, it appeared that Hinson did not disclose this deeper conflict of interest issue right away when the story broke in April 2009 - he certainly didn't disclose it during our 7+ hour deposition of him this past summer, as we apparently didn't ask the right question. His appointment to and membership with the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville Discipline Committee was not discovered until the deposition of John Blount, the church administrator, when we finally asked the question: "Is he [Hinson] a member of the discipline committee?" Answer: "Yes". Could have heard a pin drop in the conference room at that answer - even the city attorney who read his newspaper during depositions stopped reading and took off his reading glasses. :)
So we have two officers: one an Executive Investigator with the State Attorney's office who accessed a criminal database - and a Detective with the Sheriff's Office who pulled investigative subpoenas. The EI was an offensive coordinator of a rival football team trying to determine if the father had lied about residency of his son, which if true could be a crime. The Detective a member, employee, leader and discipliner at the church, investigating a blog critical of his pastor on which no threats were ever made.
Both obvious conflicts of interest, or at least POSSIBLE conflicts of interest that should have caused either man to recuse himself from the investigation to avoid the appearance of impropriety - that is if they believed what they were doing actually was furthering the objectives of the institutions they represented, and they weren't merely doing errands for their personal interests.
But neither man did recuse himself.
But now here's the difference.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office never, ever publicly admitted to the conflict of interest on the part of their detective. I asked them in April 2009 to do an Internal Affairs investigation, in which I assume they would have discovered Hinson's deeper conflict of interest as a discipline committee member, but no investigation was ever done, except for Frank Mackesy having a brief discussion with Hinson and his boss just after the April 8, 2009 story hit the front page of the Times Union in April 2009. This is shocking to me, given the obvious First Amendment issues in unmasking an anonymous critic, and that this wasn't an accessed database, but usage of state subpoena power to force under threat of law for a third party to give up private information.
But thankfully, State Attorney Angela Corey and Chief Assistant Dan McCarthy didn't hunker down, didn't backpeddle, didn't defend the indefensible in this recent case with Hughes. They came out right away and admitted the conflict of interest on the part of their investigator, publicly reprimanded him, and then warned all other members of their office that this behavior will absolutely not be tolerated and can result in dismissal.
Some are saying Corey didn't do enough, the investigator should be fired, etc. Others are not so sure, but are very concerned over Hughes' actions. I say Corey and McCarthy have done the RIGHT thing. They did determine Hughes didn't break any law in accessing the database, but that he should have recognized the obvious conflict of interest and recused himself.
Here is an excerpt from the email Dan McCarthy sent all State Attorney employees yesterday:
"Let me make it very clear…ANY use of confidential databases for unofficial purposes will result in job termination. Ditto for conducting an inquiry in which you have a conflict of interest, or where such a perception could be drawn. Consider this the equivalent of DUI or integrity issues. They will not be tolerated. Period.
We all have worked too hard to have the image of SAO stained by isolated actions which do not meet our professional standards. Character counts…so does judgment. As the purveyors of justice in 3 counties we are held to the highest standard of behavior. Always. Ms. Corey and I want exemplary behavior and personal judgment to define us…not the opposite."
Amen and AMEN! The standard is not just conflicts of interests, but even perceptions of conflict of interest. Thank you Dan McCarthy and Angela Corey. You did the RIGHT thing in this case, and you have helped restore some level of faith that misbehavior of "purveyors of justice" in this town will not be tolerated.
And lastly, let me say: given that both Hinson and Hughes are long-time employees of JSO - this should cause citizens of Jacksonville to demand that the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office beef up their training and their rules pertaining to Conflicts of Interest for their detectives and investigators. At least NOW Hughes now knows there is a higher standard at the SAO than at his previous employer, the JSO.
But based on our meeting with Sheriff John Rutherford last month, I am optimistic that he too will do the right thing in the JSO to clarify the seriousness of conflicts of interest, just as Angela Corey has in the SAO.
Bravo once again, Ms. Corey and Mr. McCarthy.