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Friday September 19th 2014

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The Upside of Corruption

Team Hayward Fails Transparency Test
By Rick Outzen

As a candidate, Mayor Ashton Hayward built his campaign on his bright smile and the promise to restore trust in government. That smile might not shine as bright now that State Attorney Bill Eddins has hit two top members of his staff, City Administrator Bill Reynolds and Mayor’s Press Secretary Derek Cosson, for non-criminal violations of Florida’s public record laws.

Both had been investigated for failure to disclose public records in regard to the city’s new logo and branding. The state attorney determined that Reynolds and Cosson had failed to provide the information requested by Diane Mack, former city council member, or make any effort to locate copies of the logos. They were charged with non-criminal violations.

Reynolds had been investigated for the release of a harassment complaint to the mayor’s political rival. Since the employee did not exercise her right to confidentiality until two days after the city administrator leaked the complaint, the state attorney said that at the time Reynolds released it the document was exempt, but not confidential. Therefore, Reynolds was charged with a non-criminal violation.

The fine for the non-criminal violations is $500, which may not seem like a big deal, but Florida’s public records are seen as being the key to transparency in our governments.

For Hayward to restore trust in government, his administration should have worked hard to deal with all public records quickly and protected the city’s employees from public humiliation.

While Reynolds and Cosson were not charged with criminal violations, their misdeeds definitely violated the city’s policies, procedures and code of ethics. They left the city open to several civil and defamation lawsuits.

The newspaper requested statements from Mayor Hayward, Reynolds and Cosson. None were given to paper by publication deadline.

The lingering question is why would the city administrator risk his career by releasing such a document.

As with all stories, there is more than what makes the press releases. For the past five months, the Independent News has investigated both these violations. After reviewing hundreds of records, we have uncovered what appears to be a scheme by  Reynolds to force out Chief of Staff John Asmar.

The “coup” required convincing Mayor Hayward that his most trusted advisor was political poison and had to go.

Blogger Gets Hired

First, Reynolds needed a willing helper who hated the chief of staff as much as he did.

Enter Derek Wayne Cosson, the mayor’s handpicked Public Information Officer.

Cosson was hired in August 2011. The 24-year-old had no college degree, no formal journalism experience, and no marketing or public relations experience. He had held two jobs since graduating from Woodham High School as Derek Stricklen—Walmart sales associate and Cox Communications customer care representative.

He ran for three years a blog, Progressive Pensacola,that focused on the city government. The coverage was first impartial but later the posts heavily supported Hayward who defeated Mayor Mike Wiggins in November 2010.

Cosson was hired without a background check and paid $54,995 a year to be the mayor’s mouthpiece.

Reynolds and Cosson had joined forces in managing the rebranding of the City of Pensacola. Hayward and Reynolds were the faces. Cosson did the behind-the-scenes management of the ad agency that Hayward had picked for a three-year, multi-million dollar contract, The Zimmerman Agency.

Though he had no experience with advertising agencies, Cosson placed himself on the same level as the mayor and city administrator. Any meetings with city officials had to be preapproved and scheduled by him, Mayor Hayward or Reynolds.

As TZA bills began to mount and the city council, public and media began to ask for details, Reynolds and Cosson allegedly lied that the city didn’t have possession of the new city logos designed by TZA.

The Independent News reported on this in its March 7 cover story “Ad Men: Team Hayward’s Million Dollar Logo.” The story caught the attention of Chief Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille, who launched an investigation into the public record law violations.

But that is not all that concerned the state attorney’s office. On the day the Independent News article was published, former Councilwoman Maren Deweese posted on her blog a document accusing Asmar of harassing a city employee.

Discrediting The Paper

The document appeared to be exempt and confidential. For Deweese to have possession of it violated city rules and procedures set in place to protect the identities of employees making complaints. Once an investigation was completed, all documents related to the complaint and any findings would have been made public.

The complaint was never investigated by the city. Asmar never got to respond. It was withdrawn before Asmar could do anything. He had already stepped down as chief of staff two weeks earlier and had been promised by the mayor a consulting contract to help complete some economic development projects. The release of the confidential document ended all that.

According to the report released by the state attorney’s office, Maren Deweese said that Reynolds gave her the document, unsolicited, at the downtown bar, World of Beer. The timing of the leak suggested the administrator wanted it on the Internet when this paper’s TZA article was published. He also had to get it to Deweese before the employee exercised her right of confidentiality.

Prior to its release, two of Reynolds’ WOB buddies sent threatening text messages and emails warning the publisher of the Independent News to back off the story or people would get hurt. One wrote that the publisher’s credibility would be damaged.

The person whom Hayward asked to find out how the document got on Deweese’s website was the same person who allegedly leaked the document.  Potentially the perfect crime—that was until the state attorney’s office began asking questions.

Why John Asmar?

For the first 18 months of Ashton Hayward’s term as the first strong mayor of Pensacola, John Asmar made sure Hayward’s programs got done. The Community Maritime Park opened. Community centers were being built in Woodland Heights and at Legion Field. The dilapidated Blount Middle School was torn down, employees were given holiday bonuses, and the city even reduced its property tax rate.

The chief of staff gave the newly elected Ashton Hayward two things he lacked—government experience and depth. Things got done at city hall, thanks to Asmar.

As long as Asmar was at city hall, Reynolds would never be seen as the top dog. In a January 2012 email, Reynolds tried to get Asmar to submit to his leadership.

“I am second in the organization in charge of all city staff,” Reynolds wrote. “Your role as Chief of Staff, the #3 position, encompasses the Office of the Mayor… I believe that this will give you the structure for you, me and Ashton to succeed. “

Mayor Hayward never clearly defined the roles of Reynolds and Asmar.

And while his supporters may try to place blame for Cosson’s and Reynolds’ transgressions elsewhere, Hayward doesn’t come out of this tale unscathed.  His lack of attention to detail, failure to manage his leadership team and his desire to avoid any controversy made him the ideal foil for Reynolds and Cosson.

Trapping Hayward

The genesis of the scheme appears to have begun at the end of January, according to city emails. The city administrator and PIO knew that Asmar was phasing out his role as chief of staff. Hayward had even told them that he would be gone by Jan. 31.

On Feb. 1, Reynolds cut off Asmar’s city email account and his security access to the seventh floor. At this point, Asmar was still chief of staff and was waiting for the mayor to work out a plan for his transition to consultant.

When he went to meet with the mayor on that Friday, Asmar couldn’t get to his office. Reynolds was nowhere to be found. Mayor Hayward exploded, brought Dick Barker into his office, and, in front of Asmar, said that there would be no change in Asmar’s status and pay. Barker was to begin working with Asmar on the City’s budget through his law firm.

Reynolds was angry. Hayward might not follow through with his commitment. Asmar might not leave city hall.

On Feb. 4, Reynolds drafted a memo regarding the transfer of Asmar’s secretary to Pensacola Energy. The only complaint that Reynolds gave in the memo was: “She explained to me at that time that she was very uncomfortable with her current working relationship with Mr. Asmar.”

No other details were given. However, the bulk of the memo described what he believed was a dating relationship between Asmar and the mayor’s executive assistant. Both Asmar and the assistant are single. Though they disputed Reynold’s assertions about their relationship, it would not violate city policies if it had existed.

Reynolds sent his memo to the City Attorney Jim Messer and asked about the city’s liability. Messer wrote Reynolds and Sherrer Kuchera, head of Human Resources, that all complaints must be investigated according to city policy and should be treated with the highest degree of confidentiality. Kurcher was not given a copy of the memo.

Shortly after midnight on Feb. 6, Reynolds and the city clerk received two emails from heatherc115@yahoo.com.  This unknown person requested any emails or memos sent by the city administrator during the last 30 days that contained any of the following words: (Asmar’s secretary’s first name), harassment and complaint. The person also wanted her title and salary and any invoices submitted by Asmar.

During the next Committee of Whole meeting, Councilman Larry Johnson said that he was aware of a “harassment” complaint in city hall. He wanted someone to do an investigation. Reynolds responded that any reassignment of personnel was by request only.

Johnson had been upset since May 2012 with Asmar over his refusal, at the mayor’s instructions, to withdraw a parking proposal that would have helped Bobby Switzer sell the Theisen Building to Pen Air Federal Credit Union. He had tried to get Asmar’s salary taken out of the 2013 city budget and had constantly hounded the mayor and his supporters to get Asmar removed as chief of staff. Asmar had also refused to hire Johnson’s brother.

Johnson’s girlfriend is Heather Coleman.  Could she be heatherc115@yahoo.com?

For the next two weeks, this person constantly demanded Reynolds’ files on any complaints. Hayward was made to believe that he was trapped. There was a document out there, Johnson could get his hands on it and the mayor would be embarrassed.

City emails show that Hayward never asked HR to investigate the matter. The records show that when Asmar found out about the memo, he demanded an investigation. The mayor’s executive assistant provided an Affidavit of Truth that disputed Reynolds’ assertions about her. She asked for an investigation and was told by HR that there was not a complaint mentioning her or any memo from Reynolds.

Had HR investigated the Reynolds memo, they would have found that the dates and times didn’t match his phone records and calendar. On Jan. 10, the day he said that he met with Asmar’s secretary, he was at Leadership Pensacola’s Military Day at NAS Pensacola at 7:30 a.m. The paper verified with the Greater Pensacola Chamber that Reynolds was in attendance at the base. These inconsistencies would have readily been found if HR had been given the memo to investigate.

Finally the pressure became too great for the mayor and he asked Asmar to publicly step down as chief of staff, which he did on Friday, Feb. 22, effective March 31.  The next day, the News Journal published a viewpoint from Asmar thanking the mayor for allowing him to serve and outlining their accomplishments.

The Catfish

But who is heatherc115@yahoo.com? The Independent News obtained the IP addresses that person used. On Feb. 15, the IP address was the same one used by Lewis J. Christopher, a fake identity created by Derek Cosson to post pro-Hayward and anti-Asmar comments on my blog.

A public record request revealed that Derek Cosson logged on to Yahoo when heatherc115 sent her email to the city clerk. It appears that Cosson helped Reynolds, his boss, keep the pressure on the mayor to jettison Asmar.

There is no direct evidence that Cosson was working with Reynolds to pressure the mayor, but we know that Reynolds came to the PIO’s rescue when he was caught in late February violating city policies over creating fake identities using city computers.

On the day that Asmar stepped down, our paper discovered Cosson was posting on the blog using a series of fake names to attack council members while promoting the mayor.

A “catfish” is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities. There is a popular TV show all about “catfishing” unsuspecting people. Derek Cosson is apparently Pensacola’s “Catfish King.”

According to a worker for Wiggins’ mayoral campaign, Cosson was suspected of creating false identities and posting disparaging remarks about Wiggins on the daily newspaper’s website.

Using a city computer, Cosson posted to our blog under the names, LJ Christopher, Lewis J. Christopher, Shelley, Rachel and Sandy—a clear violation of the city’s ethics policy and grounds for termination.

When we outed Cosson, he immediately denied it.

“Without exception, any time I have a comment about something on your blog it will be posted under my name or sent from this email address.

My understanding is that any traffic coming from the City’s network will carry the same IP address. Of the names and email addresses you listed, the only one which I am familiar with is Rachel, who is my girlfriend, whom I know has posted on your blog occasionally, despite my advice.

I promise you, neither I nor Mayor Hayward spend half as much time worrying about your blog or your paper as you seem to think.

Derek Cosson
Public Information Officer”

A week later, Reynolds told the city council that indeed it was Cosson, but he would not be fired because he did so under orders from his former supervisor. Privately, the city administrator told council members that his supervisor was Asmar.

Four days after that meeting, Reynolds was hand delivering the complaint against Asmar to Deweese, according to the state attorney.

On the same day, Cosson notified Independent News reporter Jeremy Morrison that our paper would no longer receive press releases from the city because we were no considered a legitimate newspaper. (This was coming from a man whose only qualification for his $55K job was running a blog for three years.)

“Our press releases, all our press releases, go out to all legitimate members of the media,” Cosson said.

He said the IN had been cut from the city’s media list because it “doesn’t follow the basic principles of journalism.” He suggested the publication “start behaving like a legitimate news organization.”

Cosson was out to discredit the Independent News. His ban only lasted a few hours. When citizens protested his edict, Cosson was forced to add the paper back to the media list.

Waiting for Investigation

When Deweese posted the complaint, Asmar immediately asked for an investigation. His former secretary exercised her confidentiality privilege, making the document exempt and confidential. State statute required the City to demand the return of the illegally possessed document.  There is no record that the City did so.

Pursuant to City Policy Section H-2(c)(1) of the Human Resources Manual and page 9 of the Employee Manual, all complaints should be investigated and all complaints and related documents are confidential. This did not happen either.

The lives and careers of two women and Asmar were hurt by the alleged actions of the city administrator. Before the state attorney’s report, Hayward refused to do anything about the matter.

Asmar has been left waiting for the state attorney’s office to complete its investigation. The city owes him his last invoice. The mayor has called prospective clients discouraging them from using his law firm.

In a statement given the Independent News, Asmar said he wants to clear his name.

“The Mayor knows that the allegations regarding me are unfounded. He and Mr. Larkin (city labor attorney) have repeatedly told my attorney, Eric Stevenson, and me that—the last time being in a meeting at Stevenson’s offices on Tuesday, April 23,” Asmar stated.

“I have documents, emails, text messages and video tapes that document a pattern of unlawful behavior in the Office of the Mayor and show a total disregard for Florida law, the city charter and city policies,” he said.

“I am prepared to release all documents to media upon completion of the state attorney’s investigation and when he grants me permission to do so.”

The city waits to see how Mayor Hayward will react when he finally realizes that his key advisors not only broke the law, but may have played him and forced him to fire a key person to his early success. Reynolds and Cosson have violated city policies and its code of ethics. The Pensacola City Council may ask for its own investigation.

The mayor’s smile may have to work overtime.

Note: John Asmar was the public records attorney for the Independent News from 2005-2011.

To learn about The Zimmerman Agency debacle, read Ad Men.

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Related Blog Posts:

  • Asmar steps down as Chief of Staff Link
  • Who at City Hall is anonymously pushing mayor’s political agenda? Link
  • Council Leftovers: MGT, Zimmerman and the IP Mystery Link
  • The council has investigated city staff before for computer abuse. City attorney was fined. Link
  • ‘No Further Comment’ Link
  • Reynolds’ Clarification, Cosson’s Reprimandation Link