Four complaints: citizenship can discipline misbehaving "leaders," if we use it
Official complaints have helped me check the public behavior of Rick Nolte, Lori Cunningham, Jerry Hill, and the Florida DoE in a way prosecutors, journalists, and leaders can't or won't.
Consider these four facts, created by formal complaints I have filed with state government or professional governance organizations in the last year or so.
Ron DeSantis-endorsed Polk School Board Member Rick Nolte has a hearing set for August 15 before the Florida Elections Commission. The FEC will consider an as yet confidential consent order in the official elections complaint (#22-276) I filed against Nolte over the $5,200 cash loan/contribution to his campaign he openly reported last year. Any cash donation/contribution over $5,000 is a felony. Nolte, of course, could tell the public right now what happened with his self-declared felony and announce whatever punishment he seems to have agreed to. But he’s a coward who disgraces his public seat. And cowards hide.
As I reported last weekend, the DoE/Jefferson County federal grand jury subpoena targets almost everything I formally urged the state government to investigate back in 2022. So when Ron DeSantis’ Office of the Inspector General dismissed my complaint (#2022-020063) without investigating, it provided self-evident evidence of a state cover up.
Lawyers for longtime 10th Judicial Circuit State’s Attorney Jerry Hill have until Friday, August 11, to respond in writing to my Florida Bar complaint (#2024-30,004) against Hill alleging misconduct as a private lawyer related to the Leo Schofield miscarriage of justice. It will be the first public accountability of any kind for the powerful men and women who have kept Schofield behind bars for 35 years for a murder someone else has confessed to repeatedly, while leaving his DNA at the scene. My complaint against Hill may spawn another complaint, related to the likelihood that taxpayers are footing the bill for Hill’s defense for actions he perpetrated as a private lawyer.
Polk County School Board Member Lori Cunningham announced her decision not to run for re-election the same day after the Florida Commission on Ethics informed me that it would investigate my ethics complaint against Cunningham. My complaint relates to her school uniform business and the conflicts it causes for her role as School Board member. I wrote about this issue some time ago. But this is first time I have publicly noted the formal complaint I filed earlier this year. I do not know the status of investigation; but I did sit for a lengthy interview with an Ethics Commission investigator in May. I will get you the complaint number when the investigation and finding becomes public.
Each of the complaints I wrote marries narrative journalism and public prosecution in a format that demands official authority rule on its merits. All four complaints have forced state agencies or governing bodies ( in some cases, reluctantly) to acknowledge and address the behavior I described with formal interviews, investigations, or official demands placed on the respondent.
My complaints have made power react to substantive allegations of public misconduct in ways that traditional journalism and formal prosecution alone have been unable or unwilling to achieve.
4-4 is a much better batting average than most journalists get to enjoy
Indeed, I would put my record of unpaid journalism forcing power to react in beneficial ways up against any paid journalist in Florida.
But it wasn’t my audience or reach that did it. I’m a small one-man operation, barely even using social media anymore.
Instead, I have succeeded in forcing power to react to me in clarifying ways because I am willing to have real confrontations with power, using the tools power has provided to citizens for that purpose. I am willing to stand behind my work, under oath, and commit official public acts of citizenship.
I am willing to submit my work to official judgement by the agents of the state, thereby forcing them to make their own clear judgements about what constitutes morality and justice in the eyes of state power. It is a clarifying process in the way most journalism is not. And my county is much better off for it.
Traditional journalists should start doing the same.
Journalism, especially in Florida, is most often irrelevant today because it can’t make power react to it in meaningful ways.
It’s not just that hedge funds have cut beat coverage to the bone; it’s that mainstream, traditional journalism’s norms are archaic and self-defeating for the both the business and mission of reporting that influences civic health.
These norms are also anti-citizenship in many ways, insisting on a detachment from reality and public morality that is rebranded falsely as “objectivity.” It is actually institutional cowardice — and fear of the personal blowback power can create.
As any good reporter will tell you, journalism, as an institution, more often than not fears the implications of its own reporting. So it runs away from them. Power is power for a reason. It isn’t easy to challenge or judge. That challenge or judgement often comes with personal consequences for the journalist or citizen.
And yet, power has left citizens and journalists alike a quite useful tool for forcing power to react: official complaints.
Using official complaints to punctuate great journalism will be anathema to cringing old-schoolers, clinging to a fiction of journalistic objectivity and civic virtue that was never really true. I can hear them now: but they’d accuse us of bias.
They’re going to accuse you of bias no matter what you do. With a sworn complaint, you get to answer. We believe so much in this work that we put our name on it, under oath. We challenge you to address it. “No comment” won’t do this time. Why is your bias towards silence?
That’s a potential pathway, at least, out of the “Candy Land” critique Chris Christie recently laid on Florida journalism.
In reality, there are many excellent reporters in Florida; but there are no effective journalism institutions. Most are just hedge funds strip mining their product. Ending a pointless norm could change that by empowering these excellent journalists to take the impact of their stories where they lead. That’s much better than being ignored, isn’t it?
And if you can’t bring yourself to call that journalism — or the hedge funds won’t let it happen — then maybe it’s time to introduce a new term for it — how about “citizenship writing” — and build new institutions and business models around it.
An accidentally effective prosecutor
Or you can call it public prosecution.
My record of successful confrontation with power demonstrates a sad fact: I have been, by far, the most effective, honest, and consequential prosecutor of public misbehavior by powerful or prominent people in Lakeland and Polk County in the last couple years. And probably longer.
Using nothing but words, names, and official complaint mechanisms, I have repeatedly forced power to clarify its position on official misbehavior in a way no paid prosecutor here is willing to.
This is only possible because of a much sadder truth: many of the institutions most important to justice, order, governance, civic health, and human development in Polk County and Florida have stopped functioning as anything more than self-congratulatory, self-protective nepotism machines or open adjuncts of the corrupt and dying Ron DeSantis presidential campaign.
None of them have shown the capability to police themselves and regenerate their sense of moral mission from within.
And although their laws and by-laws saddle them with me, no agency or governing body with which I’ve filed a complaint really wants to reckon with these complaints I’ve filed — with the possible exception of the Commission on Ethics’ investigation of Lori Cunningham.
The DeSantis OIG worked very hard to cover-up the MGT part of the DoE/Jefferson scandal, lying to the public in the process. And I promise you the DeSantis Elections Commission has worked very hard to avoid the embarrassing headlines that any punishment of Nolte will bring for DeSantis. That’s the same obvious reason Polk Sheriff Grady Judd and State’s Attorney Brian Haas have refused to even look at Nolte’s self-declared felony.
And let’s be honest, 10th Circuit’s actual prosecution of the criminal James Dunn for his alleged election crimes against School Board Member Lisa Miller is only happening because I fought hard for it, along with a number of other good citizens. And because there’s no real DeSantis blowback for Dunn that the timid Brian Haas to fear. A serious governor, not a tinpot Twitter dictator, would remove Haas and Judd for refusing to do their jobs in the Nolte case because it would embarrass their dictator.
Who else will do it?
Ironically, this collapse of Florida’s governing and civic institutions has unintentionally elevated the influence of both my writing and the official complaints I file.
Thus, my effectiveness as an accidental citizen prosecutor indicts our public “leaders” far more than it aggrandizes me. Nature may abhor a vacuum; but corruption and cynicism love it.
Some folks in my community wish I would do and say less — and say it less bluntly — particularly when I use people’s names. But no one else with any public stature around here is willing to hold a status peer accountable in a serious public way for bad civic behavior or job performance. Until someone else is willing to fill the civic vacuum and do their job, so I don’t have to, you’re stuck with me.
I wish this was not true.
I have many diverse interests and relationships I’m neglecting when I’m doing this unpaid citizenship work. And I put the people I love in harm’s way every time I publicly fight power for the decency of public space.
But duty is duty — and the people I love have to live in this community, too. I want it to have a future based on some semblance of ethical governance and shared civic space — because we’re not going anywhere. Our home and capital, in all its forms, are here.
Today, the Polk County Status Class has created a leadership culture utterly bereft of professional morality or seriousness — where Rick “T.I.T.S” Nolte gets to roam your 6th grade daughter’s middle school, embarrassing everyone, because the Status Class couldn’t rouse itself to object.
The Polk Status Class has destroyed the possibilities of its own treasured “university.” Now they just watch in silent boredom as Florida Poly President Randy Avent gives maliciously useless has-been GOP politician Kelli Stargel a 6-figure fake, taxpayer-funded job for which her work calendar is emptier than a Kansas prairie — and then bails on his dying college. I hope the grifters make Kelli the next Florida Poly president. It’s not like anybody would care enough to object.
Man, DEI and affirmative action are something, aren’t they?
Jason Looney and the difference between serious complaints and silly complaints
When I was a School Board member, I had two silly ethics complaints filed against me. Both were dismissed without investigation because they alleged:
That I tweeted about a book about Florida’s governors, to which I contributed the chapter about Gov. John Martin (1924-1928), for which I was not paid. This entire book was a labor of love for Florida’s historians, most of whom, like me, donated their time and effort to create it.
I was publicly critical of Jason Looney, the now former principal of Tenoroc High School, who was just transferred to Southwest Middle School as a principal.
Both of those allegations are completely true, which is why the Ethics Commission laughed them out of the system without investigating. To state the obvious, they are not ethical violations in any way. They might as well have accused me of breathing.
I welcomed those complaints — publicized them myself — because holding public people accountable flows in all directions. Come at me with your complaints about my behavior any time you want. Show me what you think you’ve got.
These School Board complaints against me also proved clarifying. They forced the state government to acknowledge in public that the people whining about my work were silly, petty, frivolous, and self-interested.
In fact, the second ethics complaint, filed by Jason Looney’s wife, was simple retaliation. It stood in perfect juxtaposition with the very serious official complaint I had submitted to the Polk School District concerning allegations of sexual harassment, witness tampering, and other mismanagement against Looney at Tenoroc.
Pursuing that official complaint against Jason Looney almost certainly cost me re-election — along with a few relationships I’m gradually repairing.
Virtually the entire Status Class of Polk County took Jason Looney’s side. They saw me as too mean because I publicly held my entire institution — including the superintendent at that time and multiple elected board members — to account for its institutional behavior in the Looney case. I was painted as a woke racist by basically everybody thought of as important in this county. Really.
And I would do it all over again, exactly the same way, a million times.
I was also completely vindicated, as was Brandi Garcia Blanchard, Looney’s victim. The Polk County taxpayers last year paid Brandi Garcia Blanchard $80,000 to avoid a trial over Looney’s conduct and the district’s reaction to it. That trial would have been very uncomfortable for a number of prominent people. It would not have been uncomfortable for me.
I gave a deposition in the case last year that was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my public life. I was eager to testify under oath in open court.
And I do not hesitate to say that Looney’s continued employment as a leader in the Polk School District — now principal at Southwest Middle — is a disgrace.
If the local status class had listened to me, rather than calling me a woke racist with Barnett/Harrell money, the taxpayers probably would have saved $80K that can’t be used in the classroom now.
Irony favors the committed
Ironically, filing that official complaint against Jason Looney, holding my own institution accountable, which cost me my re-election, is also what freed me to act in the de facto public prosecutor role I’m now filling in a wider way.
I have found, over the years, that irony is more likely to break in my direction when I’ve been willing to accept consequences for acting morally and with honor. When I pray, in my way, that’s what I seek the courage and strength to do.
If I had not submitted that official complaint against Jason Looney, the official position of the entire Polk School District would have been that sexual harassment, witness tampering, and other mismanagement among its leaders is fine. It is still the position of the Lakeland and Polk status class. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
If I had not submitted the four complaints I cited at the top, the official unanimous official position of the people of Polk County and Florida would be that the behavior I described is fine. Now, the state knows at least one citizen objects and had the civic motivation to act on it. And the impact of my complaints, at least three of which are still in motion, is growing.
I’m well aware that the investigating agencies may conclude — like the DeSantis OIG did in DoE/Jefferson — that the behavior of the respondents is fine.
It isn’t fine, as everyone who looks at it closely knows; but investigators are human beings with personal interests and vulnerabilities, too. Like reporters and prosecutors, their institutions often punish them for doing their jobs. So they may find ways to absolve the behavior out of self-protection.
But they’ll be making a public choice to do so. They will have to either explain why the behavior is fine, in public, or hide through a bland perfunctory dismissal — as the DeSantis OIG has on DoE/Jefferson.
Either choice is clarifying. Clarity is the great enemy of corruption and the enabler of effective confrontation with power. Clarity creates an official record of individual and institutional behavior. Damning records create vulnerabilities for power that decency can exploit.
Everything is personal; especially public behavior and public accountability for it
I’m far more interested in systemic reform and morality than personal consequences for the respondents.
I only care about the punishments any individuals face because of their capacity to help enforce institutional standards of behavior. Fix the issue, and I’m all for personal leniency in most cases.
But I also understand that punishment focuses the mind. And I’ve learned that no badly led institution reforms its morality voluntarily, without pain. Complaints about individuals are the only way to really get at systems.
Personally felt consequences — or the specter of them — are the only effective means I’ve ever seen for making sure powerful institutions change bad behavior. Power, like everything else, is personal. That’s why I use names.
That’s why I’m willing to meld citizenship and journalism in the service of the greater good in a way that wounds people and makes enemies — even though I am a nice person who does not really enjoy inflicting public pain. That’s why I can make power react to me in a way most journalists or citizens can’t.
As I said: I’m willing to.
I’m willing to absorb this reaction, which happens all the time:
How dare you tell the public I’m doing what everybody knows I’m doing — and seek to impose a real consequence for it? Don’t you know we handle these things privately, which is to say, not at all? That’s the point of being in the status class. Consequences are for other people, without status. How dare you, lib, act to discipline us? Don’t you know who we are?
Let’s make a deal
I would like to live in a community where I don’t have to go though this very familiar pattern quite so often — where leaders and people of status are capable of holding each other accountable to the civic good and enforcing standards of public behavior. In some cases, it would be nice if they would just do their jobs.
I know it’s asking a lot.
But if you want to hear less from me, how about ya’ll help me out? I will make that deal with you — if you’ll step up. Police yourselves — morally, civically, legally — so I don’t have to. I would appreciate the vacation from my rather stressful unpaid job.
Until then, recognize nobody else in this community or state was willing to put themselves — or their loved ones — on the line to try to change the behavior of Rick Nolte, Lori Cunningham, and Jerry Hill — much less the Florida Department of Education.
Just like nobody else (except the very brave Tenoroc teachers who brought his conduct to my attention) was willing to try to stop Jason Looney from costing the taxpayers $80K for his terrible behavior and leadership.
Do you really think that this community would better off without those complaints, without that real accountability for important officials and “leaders”?
If not, maybe it’s time for some of you to take a turn.