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TMCNet:  Osceola Clerk Armando Ramirez faces whistle-blower lawsuit [Orlando Sentinel :: ]

[July 11, 2014]

Osceola Clerk Armando Ramirez faces whistle-blower lawsuit [Orlando Sentinel :: ]

(Orlando Sentinel (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 12--The former staff lawyer for Osceola County Clerk of Court Armando Ramirez filed a lawsuit this week accusing the clerk of routinely destroying public records, misusing public funds, falsifying payroll and improperly hiring relatives.


Attorney Adam Alvarez filed the lawsuit at the Osceola County Courthouse, where he was fired March 4 after warning Ramirez against breaking state public-records law, records show.

Ramirez, a first-term Democrat, dismissed the allegations.

"That, I can say, is preposterous -- it is not true," Ramirez said. "Of course, you have to consider the source. He's a disgusted, disgruntled ex-employee...That's all I have to say." Alvarez would not comment and referred questions to his attorney, Tobe Lev, who said, "I hope justice gets done. He has the stuff to back it up." The lawsuit seeks Alvarez's reinstatement, as well as lost salary and benefits. Alvarez worked for the clerk's office from Aug. 19, 2013 until March.

The lawsuit accuses Ramirez of asking senior-level employees to call him on his personal cellphone and to communicate in writing by using his personal email account "in an attempt to intentionally avoid public disclosure of his telephone calls and emails." Under Florida's public-records law, public employees' job-related correspondence is open for review.

Chief Deputy Clerk Jennifer Soto is accused in the lawsuit of destroying records of a friend, Steve Massiah, who was hired in October as head of the clerk's information technology department despite a history of arrests.

"Jennifer immediately informed the Clerk and Alvarez that Massiah had multiple criminal convictions on his criminal history background check," the lawsuit states. "Jennifer stated that she would dispose of Massiah's personnel file and background check and hire Massiah as an independent contractor." A criminal history by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows that Massiah has been arrested seven times since 1998 on charges including domestic violence and fraud. He no longer works at the clerk's office. Massiah could not be reached for comment.

After Soto's sister, Antoinette Mendez, was hired last year, Ramirez asked Alvarez to research if her employment violated state nepotism law. Citing the clerk's office policy and state law, Alvarez wrote in the lawsuit that he advised it's against state law for the clerk, directors, administrators and department heads to hire relatives.

"The clerk stated that he and Jennifer could decide whom to hire and fire," the lawsuit states.

Soto did not respond to a written request for comment.

Ramirez and his senior staff also are accused in the lawsuit of misusing public funds.

Just before Thanksgiving, the lawsuit states, Ramirez used money from the clerk's office to buy and give away turkeys at a Kissimmee grocery store.

"Alvarez advised the Clerk he may not utilize employees of the Clerk during the Clerk's regular working hours to perform a non-governmental function," the lawsuit states. "The Clerk not only did not heed Alvarez's legal advice but ordered Alvarez...to work at this event to politically benefit the Clerk." Alvarez also claims senior employees paid themselves for time they did not work, including two-hour lunches, leaving early and claiming to work from home.

Many of the allegations of destroying public records concerned fear of articles reporting on the clerk's administration.

Alvarez accused Ramirez of routinely assigning him to provide legal advice to political supporters and friends facing eviction, foreclosure and problems with a homeowners' association.

A former West Point cadet, detective sergeant and lawyer with the New York Police Department, Alvarez wrote he objected because he "could not render legal advice concerning matters that were not within the scope of his public employment" on government time.

Early this year, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Jeff Ashton cleared Ramirez of breaking the public-records law after an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

"Let me close by noting that while the evidence available to me does not rise to the level of justifying the filing of criminal charges, it does suggest that you and your senior staff could benefit from additional training in the area of public records retention and public records law," Ashton wrote Ramirez in February.

hcurtis@tribune.com or 407-420-5257 ___ (c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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