PALM BAY, Fla. – Palm Bay City Councilman Tres Holton is disputing a hearing officer's determination that there is "probable cause" to believe he violated city code dealing with conflicts of interest.
The allegations stem from Holton's work for the Space Coast Paratroopers Association before taking office as a city councilman in November 2014, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
But Holton didn't get paid for his work from the organization — which partnered with the city in its "Space Coast Paratroopers Association" program — until after taking office.
The hearing officer, retired Circuit Court Judge John Moxley Jr., found that the temptation to place private interest of the SCPA ahead of Holton's public interest to Palm Bay would indicate that there was probable cause that the appearance of conflict of interest existed from the time Holton took office until the time the SCPA ceased to exist on April 24, 2017 — a period of nearly 2½ years.
Moxley added, though, that Holton never actually voted on any SCPA matters during that time.
"I believe the remaining complaint is baseless, and I am confident that this assertion will be proven false," Holton told FLORIDA TODAY. "While it is unfortunate that we have reached this point, I intend to continue to be truthful, transparent and ethical throughout this process, and I will provide my full cooperation."
The Palm Bay City Council is scheduled to discuss what to do next at its meeting on Thursday.
Under the city's code of ethics for public officials, the council has a number of options for sanctions — if it reached that stage — including reprimand; censure; removal or exclusion from leadership positions; or removal or exclusion from the governing board. In addition to being a City Council member, Holton currently is Palm Bay's deputy mayor.
Moxley noted in his opinion that, when probable cause is found, the Palm Bay code then "requires that a majority vote of the members of the City Council will make the final determination regarding whether an ethics violation has occurred, based on a preponderance of evidence."
In a memo, Palm Bay City Attorney Andrew Lannon told the council that, if it wishes to pursue further actions against Holton, that it needs to hire an independent attorney to represent it.
The ethics complaint against Holton was filed July 26 by Donald Overton, the former executive director of the Space Coast Veterans Alliance Inc., which previously had been known as the Space Coast Paratroopers Association. Overton also previously was Palm Bay's veterans' affairs and business specialist until the city eliminated his position.
Lannon hired Moxley to look into the charges, serve as a "neutral and detached magistrate," and issue an opinion as to whether probable cause for the alleged violations existed.
Before taking office, Holton performed $5,000 worth of non-lobbying services for the SCPA. Holton performed government affairs marketing through the Holton Group LLC, which did business as Countdown Consulting.
However, Holton had not been paid for the work he performed for SCPA before taking office as a councilman.
After taking office, Holton received a payment from the SCPA of $1,500 on May 16, 2015. Holton also received a payment of $1,275 on July 24, 2015, in the form of air-conditioning work done on his home. But Holton still was owed $2,225 toward his $5,000 bill. The SCPA was dissolved on April 24, 2017.
The SCPA was one of the partners with the city on the Homes for Warriors program, which provided homes to military veterans who had disabilities.
"If the Space Coast Paratroopers Association did not perform their obligations under the Homes for Warriors program by not seeking to retrofit the foreclosed home to the warrior's need, or if they did not assist in procuring volunteers and community partners to provide resources for the home, it is true that Councilman Holton would be tempted not to de-partner the Space Coast Paratroopers Association for these failures," Moxley wrote in his nine-page report.
Moxley, however, said there was no finding of probable cause to indicate any voting conflicts, because Holton never actually voted on matters related to SCPA during that time.
In an unrelated issue, the Florida Housing Finance Corp. earlier this year criticized the Homes for Warriors program for what was perceived as a lack of city oversight and sloppy paperwork.
Moxley found no improprieties stemming from other allegations made by Overton, or from allegations made in a separate ethics complaint filed Aug. 7 by Thomas Gaume Jr., who is a 2018 candidate for Holton's City Council seat.
Those allegations included that Holton improperly received gifts he shouldn't have accepted as a public official; that he harassed Overton through Facebook private messages; and that he improperly supported work for the St. Johns Heritage Parkway, since he worked for landowners along the parkway before taking office.
Holton said he expects to be cleared to the remaining allegation, related to the money Holton was owed by SCPA.
"Part of what is so great about our political system is the checks and balances put in place to ensure that community leaders are held to the highest of standards," Holton said. "As a public servant, I recognize and accept that the public has the right to have their concerns heard and, while I am disheartened by the allegations being levied against me, I trust that the process will serve the truth and show no wrongdoing.”
After Moxley made his initial ruling, Holton sought a rehearing and also provided additional information to challenge the probable cause finding of appearance of conflict. But Moxley twice denied the rehearings.