ORLANDO, Fla. (FNN NEWS) – Prosecutors from the 7th Judicial Circuit Court cleared Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh of 10 criminal charges July 17, 2020 on an intriguing technicality: according to their detailed 10-page report, the witnesses weren’t credible.
Assistant state attorneys Melissa Clark and Andrew Urbanak listed three main witnesses in the report, who were not only former OCPA employees, but former OCPA leadership: Willis Perry, OCPA’s former human resources manager, Aisha Hassan, OCPA’s former finance director, and Laverne McGee, OCPA’s former communications director, who the prosecutors list in the report as the mastermind behind it all based on the complaints, reports, and interviews they reviewed.
After reviewing “thousands of pages of documents and many hours of recorded witness interviews” from FDLE as part of their investigation, the prosecutors decided “there is insufficient evidence to establish criminal activity beyond a reasonable doubt.”
But what was the reasonable doubt? According to the prosecutors, the witnesses’ intensions. Particularly McGee’s.
The Case at Hand
Unlike what the media initially made it out to be—with allegations of Singh having strippers in his office and using OCPA funding for lavish trips—the prosecutors investigated the criminal complaints surrounding a 2015 Orange County Comptroller audit of the OCPA for which Singh ordered his staff to alter the name on financial documents to read “staff” instead of his own name on a $74.56 gas receipt. Additionally, the witnesses called into question Singh’s use of an OCPA vehicle while collecting a monthly $540 to $575 stipend for giving over his personal vehicle for office use.
Other questioned transactions included Singh’s use of OCPA funds to take an Orlando Magic representative to lunch at the Tiger Bay Club (which Singh wanted removed to simply reflect lunch) and a contrived photo meant to depict Singh at a Curry Festival in Tampa Bay—with the photo being taken two years after he attended the festival—to justify his attendance there. In actuality, Singh took the photo at a park near his home with a created banner, made to look as if he were at the festival. Singh wanted the language in documents reflecting that he attended the Curry Festival removed.
In their investigation, the prosecutors learned from CPA Farlen Halikman, the accountant Singh called in to review documents for the 2015 audit, that listing “office staff” for the p-card transactions was allowable since Singh also counts as staff. At the time, Halikman advised against Singh altering the documents, and said all that was needed was an attached sticky note to indicate that it was a staff expense.
The prosecutors also stated in their report that if OCPA business was discussed at the Tiger Bay Club lunch, then the expense was justified.
In the end, the prosecutors found no regulations, neither in the Florida Statutes, the Orange County Charter, nor even the OCPA’s regulations, that prohibited Singh from both handing over his personal vehicle for office use and collecting a monthly stipend as well as using an office fleet vehicle. By law he can do both.
In their closing summary, the prosecutors stated, “the alterations were concealing something that he [Singh] could legally do under Florida Law.”
The Other Connected Complaints
Perry, Hassan and McGee filed whistleblower complaints in relation to Singh’s order to alter documents for the 2015 audit. They were all eventually terminated from their positions in Singh’s office, causing them to file civil complaints of racial discrimination, and for the ladies’ part, sexual harassment as well.
Here are the specifics from the prosecutors’ report:
On August 24, 2018, Willis Perry filed a federal complaint against Rick Singh personally and in his capacity as Orange County Property Appraiser alleging:
- a violation of the Florida Whistleblower Act,
- a violation of the Florida Civil Rights Act,
- Retaliation under the Florida Civil Rights Act,
- a violation of Title VII, Retaliation under Title VII, and
- Retaliation under the First Amendment.
This complaint was settled out-of-court.
The ladies’ complaints, however, are still ongoing. Per the report:
On November 6, 2018, McGee and Hassan filed a federal complaint against Rick Singh in his capacity as Orange County Property Appraiser alleging:
- a violation of the Florida Public Sector Whistleblower Act,
- Sexual Harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (two separate counts were filed for both McGee and Hassan),
- Retaliation under Title VII (two separate counts were filed for both McGee and Hassan),
- Sexual Harassment in Violation of the Florida Civil Rights Act (two separate counts),
- Retaliation in violation of the Florida Civil Rights Act (two separate counts), and
- Retaliation in violation of the First Amendment
The complaint is still pending at this time.
Singh hit back in 2020. The report states:
On February 11, 2020, Singh, in his capacity as Orange County Property Appraiser, filed a complaint in state court against Hassan and McGee alleging:
- a “Civil Action for Surreptitious Recording in Violation of section 934.03”,
- Cyberstalking and violation of Florida’s GPS Law,
- Theft of Agency Records,
- Invasion of Privacy, and
This complaint is also still pending at this time.
The counterstrike continued. The report notes:
Recently, a criminal complaint was filed by OCPA against both Hassan and McGee. The Orlando Police Department investigated the allegations and completed a charging affidavit with allegations of:
- offenses against public utilities, F.S. 815.061,
- illegal interception of oral communications, F.S. 943.03, and
- theft of documents from OCPA (Hassan), F.S. 812.014 which were forwarded to the State Attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit. The State Attorney’s Office for the 9th Judicial Circuit declined to prosecute the charges against Hassan and McGee.
The document theft complaint came after Hassan chose to keep the original copies of the documents Singh ordered her to shred.
It Gets Messier
The prosecutors included Perry’s complaint against McGee for creating a hostile work environment from the moment she was hired.
According to the investigation, Perry ended up filing a complaint against her in 2016.
“The work environment at OCPA is disruptive, dysfunctional, and laden with mistrust, resentment, and anger led mainly by Laverne McGee and upheld by the Orange County Property Appraiser. McGee has committed numerous improper and unethical acts, made unsubstantiated claims of me stalking and harassing her, exhibited harassing and threatening behavior towards me, sent defamatory emails to my supervisor and the Property Appraiser, blatantly lied about me, made racist overtones/comments and has gotten into arguments with me (and mostly ever other employee in Admin Services). This has established a pattern of conduct sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment…”
Per the report, former OCPA IT employee Vikaash Maharaj disclosed during his interview that McGee instructed him to create the false banner for the contrived photograph.
Singh also said the contrived photograph was her idea, while McGee insisted it was Singh’s.
Additionally, Halikman disclosed in his interview that while he was advising Singh’s team concerning the altered documents, McGee mentioned the contrived photograph to him, saying they should remove it. He wasn’t aware of the photograph prior to her mention of it, and he told her the photograph wouldn’t be a factor in the audit, so including it was unnecessary.
All told, the charges against Singh have the attached motives of financial gain and reducing political scrutiny.
Here’s where the reasonable doubt comes in.
According to the prosecutors’ report, their investigation revealed that Singh wouldn’t stand to gain any financial benefit from his actions, which eliminated that criteria for criminality. While reducing political scrutiny appeared to be the motive here, the prosecutors still did not believe it held criminal weight in this case: “…both the auditor and accountant [Halikman], as well as statutory law, support the conclusion that this staged photograph did not result in any monetary change in regard to a “benefit.” As far as the benefit being “optics”, the legal analysis is the same. There is no precedent for defining avoidance of “bad optics” as constituting a benefit under the Official Misconduct statute.
“Finally, it is unclear to what extent Singh participated in the decision to stage the photograph. This is based on the conflicting testimony of McGee, Hassan, and Perry compared to the other witnesses.”
In their conclusion, the prosecutors pointed back to the source of the complaints, shrugged their shoulders, and clapped the dust from their hands. They closed succinctly:
“McGee, Hassan and Perry made statements that Singh was worried about the appearance of the audit and made these alterations to avoid scrutiny. As discussed, their testimony is in conflict with other, seemingly more reliable witnesses. Their relationships to the office, combined with their current and past litigation creates factual conflicts and motivation to fabricate facts for their benefit.”
Singh held a press conference Monday, July 20, 2020 to set the record straight and answer press questions about the investigation. “I know the truth. I know I did nothing wrong,” he said during the press conference. “He referred to the witnesses as “disgruntled employees.”
Mellissa Thomas is Editor for Florida National News. | email@example.com