Bayou la Batre City Clerk Jaime Abastoflor was removed from his position by the City Council last week — a termination coming one day after he and Mayor Brett Dungan “acknowledged committing a minor [ethics] violation” in Montgomery.
According to Councilwoman Annette Johnson, Abastoflor was dismissed for “just cause” after a majority of the council determined there was a lack of “proper accountability” of the city’s finances. As clerk, Abastoflor was responsible for overseeing those finances and reporting them to the council — a contentious issue in recent months.
Johnson, who has been in a very public political feud with Dungan since March, said Abastoflor was “commingling” grant funds with the city’s general fund, specifically one grant the city received as a result of Hurricane Katrina. She also told reporters there had been issues with Abastoflor “informing the council of debts and contractual agreements in a timely manner.”
As city clerk, Abastoflor was at the center of several financial questions appearing to have started in December 2014, when Abastoflor and Dungan sought and secured a $50,000 loan in the city’s name without notifying the council first.
However, a month before Abastoflor had his first run-in with the Alabama Ethics Commission over an instance that has since been referred to as “Wafflegate” — in which both Abastoflor and Dungan acknowledged some role last week in a closed hearing in front of the ethics commission.
However, Dungan has consistently denied asking city workers to do anything. At the time, he and his former assistant both stated to Lagniappe that Abastoflor had instructed employees from the Bayou la Batre Public Works Department to repair the sign, which Wanda Overstreet called an “error in his judgement.”
The cost of labor the city incurred was less than $30, and Abastoflor almost immediately reimbursed the city after the complaint was filed. However, despite claims he didn’t know about the repairs beforehand, Dungan acknowledged “committing a minor violation” Wednesday, according to Hugh Evans, chief legal counsel to the Alabama Ethics Commission.
“A hearing was held and Mayor Brett Dungan and Jamie Abastoflor asked that their cases be handled administratively,” Evans said. “Now it will go to the local District Attorney, and a penalty can be levied against them once the D.A. approves it and sends the case back to us.”
Though he wouldn’t comment in detail on the pending matter, Evans did say generally law enforcement officials accept the recommendations of the ethics commission and will not conduct an independent investigation into the violations before approving them administratively.
Dungan did not personally attend the Ethics Commission meeting and wouldn’t comment on the “violation.” However, Michael Hickman, his attorney, said the mayor “made no admission to violating anything” and only agreed to the administrative handling of the situation because “this happened on [his] watch.”
Hickman said he disagreed with Evans’ conclusion, arguing while it may seem to some like a “minor distinction,” the state ethics law is based on a person’s intent when committing a supposed violation.
“For it to have been a true violation of that statue that would warrant prosecution or impeachment, it has to be shown beyond a reasonable doubt there was an intent to violate for personal gain,” Hickman said. “All complaints that can be will be handled administratively. It’s not a felony, not a misdemeanor and it’s not admissible in court …”
Hickman said “no matter how preposterous” a claim is, the ethics commission is bound by law to open a file based on a complaint. As a result, he said, complaints can often be used as political fodder.
“They can look at it and say, ‘there’s nothing here,’ but your political enemies get to say, ‘I’ve given this to ethics commission, and they’re looking at it,’” Hickman said. “This is and was simply an error in judgment by Abastoflor, and the moment we knew about it, we had it paid.”
Hickman continued to say that Abastoflor’s statements to the ethics commission were “exactly” consistent with the comments Dungan and Overstreet made to Lagniappe last November.
Dungan and Johnson have been arguing publicly for some time now — a dispute that came to a head last month when Dungan filed a civil suit against Johnson and other members of the council for firing Overstreet and former city attorney Bill Wasden. Since then, Johnson filed harassment charges against Dungan that resulted in his arrest May 19.
Those charges are still pending in Mobile County Circuit Court with a trial scheduled for June 24.
Though Johnson didn’t file the ethics complaint detailing “Wafflegate,” she claims to have filed others related to Dungan’s use of city credit cards and the $50,000 loan she claims to have discovered on her own in February.
Johnson was also in attendance at the ethics commission in Montgomery last Wednesday, and said the complaint from “Wafflegate” was “just a drop in the bucket compared to what would be coming down in the future.”
Despite those claims, Hickman flatly denied any other pending ethics charges. He also suggested the other complaints filed could have been shot down once they were reviewed by the commission.
“Regardless of however many things [Johnson] says she’s taken up there, this is it,” ‘Hickman said. “They’ve never asked about anything of this other stuff, and the only issues I’m aware of is the one we’ve dealt with and that’s over.”
Two other ethics charges against Dungan and former city councilwoman Jennifer Stork were dismissed by the ethics commission last week, according to Bayou la Batre resident John Ladnier, who filed all three complaints.
But like Johnson, Ladnier said there are more complaints to come, including some still pending before the commission.