'Probable cause' Starke clerk abused power

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The Florida Commission on Ethics found there is probable cause Ricky Thompson, Starke city clerk, misused his authority over an employee.

State ethics officials found probable cause that Starke’s city clerk violated state statutes by interfering with a public official’s subordinate, according to documents released Wednesday.

The Florida Commission on Ethics ordered a public hearing to determine whether Ricky Thompson is guilty of breaking any laws.

The commission did not find probable cause to support a complaint that Thompson misused taxpayer funds to pay legal fees defending himself in a related ethics case.

Thompson, who was elected as city clerk in 2013 and re-elected in 2017, declined to comment Wednesday through his executive assistant.

His attorney John Whitaker said Thompson "respectfully disagrees with the finding of probable cause and is confident that he will be exonerated when he is afforded the opportunity to present his case with witnesses and evidence."

Mary Johnson, a Lawtey resident and former Starke city employee, filed a complaint with the Commission of Ethics in 2016 saying that Thompson used inappropriate authority to work with Starke’s former purchasing director, Bridgett Underhill.

Underhill reported to the city manager, not Thompson.

The Bradford County Sheriff’s Office was investigating Underhill for misuse of public funds and inventory funds. To facilitate the investigation, Thompson said, he moved Underhill into his office.

Johnson and Thompson told investigators that Thompson gave Underhill access to his computer, which ultimately gave her the ability to open and alter city employees’ files.

Thompson, the commission’s investigative report says, “speculated that she ‘probably’ did not have the level of sophistication to navigate the full extent of the Clerk’s Office computer system.”

Underhill told investigators she didn’t know how the clerk’s office network worked and said she didn’t access, alter or delete files unrelated to residents’ utility bills.

Underhill was placed on administrative leave in October 2016. When Bob Milner became city manager in March 2017, Underhill was still on administrative leave. Milner requested the Krizner Group, a Tallahassee-based law firm, conduct an outside review. Once the review was completed, Milner terminated Underhill’s employment in June 2017.

Underhill has filed a lawsuit against the city.

Thompson was employed in multiple city positions between 1983 and 2013, when he was elected city clerk.

Tom Ernharth, former Starke city manager, said city attorney Dan Sikes advised him not “rock any boats” because Thompson was “very well politically connected,” according to the ethics commission's investigative report. Sikes told Ernharth to “tread lightly” when dealing with Thompson, the report says.

Johnson and Ernhartd told investigators Thompson and Underhill seemed to have an “unusually close relationship.” At one point, Ernharth said, Thompson told another employee that he would “‘go above and beyond’ to protect Ms. Underhill.” Thompson also told the employee, “Until the very end, she is my number one, and I will protect her until the very end.”

Thompson and Underhill told investigators he and Underhill are close friends and said they don’t have a romantic relationship or do private business together.

Johnson also told the commission that Thompson threatened to fire employees who spoke out against Underhill.

Johnson said Underhill harassed and withheld materials from the city’s gas department. A group of 11 employees planned to complain about Underhill at a city commission meeting.

“Ricky sent a message back that if 11 people showed up to a commission meeting to complain about Bridgett, then 11 people would be fired,” Johnson told investigators.

Thompson told investigators that if he threatened to fire those employees, he didn’t remember it. Ernharth told investigators he remembered the threat.

As an elected official, Thompson is not subject to City Commission approval.

Milner said in an interview he didn’t have any comment regarding Thompson.

“We’re going to carry on as we have been every day,” Milner said.

Johnson was fired from the city in October 2016 for having incorrect time cards. She sued the city for wrongful termination and settled for a lump sum.

She said she was glad the Commission on Ethics took her complaint.

“I’m really glad that it happened, and I just want the community to know what was going on,” Johnson said.

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