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Former clerk of court PIO files suit against Ramirez

Posted on Wednesday, July 16, 2014 at 1:06 pm

By Tiffanie Reynolds
Staff Writer
Four months after he was terminated from the Osceola County Clerk of Courts office, attorney Adam Alvarez is fight­ing back in a lawsuit filed last Tuesday against Osceola County Clerk of Court Armando Ramirez.

Armando Ramirez

Armando Ramirez

Alvarez states in the lawsuit that Ramirez violated Florida’s Public
Sector Whistle Blower’s Act, protecting employees of public employers or independent contract­ors from negative consequences when reporting any illegal or harmful conduct by the employer, when he was fired from the Clerk of Courts office in early March.  The lawsuit states that while Alvarez was employed as Clerk of Court general council and public information officer, his legal advice was ignored on alleged illegal actions Ramirez, Chief Deputy Clerk Jennifer Soto and staff were taking. It included hiring friends and relatives to Clerk of Court positions, falsifying employee payroll records,
illegally using public funds, deleting emails considered part of public record and
other actions.
Alvarez is asking to be temporarily reinstated as an employee of the Clerk of Court with full benefits and seniority rights, compensated for lost wages and benefits as well as any expenses included in the lawsuit and an injunction against Ramirez. This will total more than $15,000, if Alvarez is granted every request stated in
the lawsuit.
Tobe Lev, attorney representing Alvarez, said that the lawsuit is in its early stages, with a trial anticipated to be several months off. When Alvarez was fired in March, the lawsuit states that the Clerk’s Office offered a severance package of four weeks pay if he signed a nondisclosure agreement on Ramirez’s alleged acts and immediately resign instead. Alvarez refused and said that using public funds for a severance package was illegal because it is not part of his employee contract.
He was fired by the clerk shortly after.
In October 2013, Ramirez hired Steve A. Massiah, a friend of Soto’s, as informational technology director on Soto’s recommendation. After he was hired, Soto told Ramirez that he had multiple criminal convictions listed on his background check, according to the lawsuit. Soto told Alvarez that she would throw away Massiah’s personnel and background check and hire Massiah as an independent contractor, ignoring Alvarez’s advice that it was illegal to destroy public records. Ramirez also hired Antoinette Mendez in October, and told Alvarez to hide that Mendez is Soto’s sister to the public. Alvarez also learned that the pre-employment examinations were waived for Mendez. After telling Ramirez that hiring Mendez was against state statues and his own personal policies and that he found out that Mendez’s pre employment examinations were waived, Ramirez said that he and Soto could decide whom to hire and fire, according to the lawsuit.
Alvarez also docu—mented clerk employees falsifying payroll records, such as coming in late, leaving for the day immediately after Ramirez leaves his office, taking two hour lunch breaks and not showing up for work on the claim of working from home. Despite his claims, employees were still paid for a full pay period of work. Alvarez advised that staff members who received payment for hours they did not work was a crime, but Ramirez did nothing to change these practices, the lawsuit stated.
While employed, Alvarez observed at least three instances of Ramirez and employees using public funds for private purposes. The earliest recorded example in the lawsuit was when Ramirez used public funds to purchase turkeys for a Thanksgiving giveaway during regular office hours. Alvarez also learned in January that Soto used public funds to decorate her office and purchase appliances such as a personal coffee machine. She also used public  money to send to the IT director flowers as condolences for the death of his father, the lawsuit stated.
There are also several recorded cases of the office refusing public record requests or destroying documents that are considered part of public record, against Alvarez’s legal advice, in the lawsuit. Only a month after Alvarez was hired, Ramirez held a staff meeting directing employees to communicate with him by  using his personal email address and cell phone number to avoid his correspondence becoming public record.
Alvarez told Ramirez that it was a violation of Government in the Sunshine Laws, but Ramirez ignored his advice and instructed him to also use his personal email and cell phone. In another instance, Alvarez was instructed to purge records related to a press release on his computer. Other employees eliminated emails of individuals, including completely deleting former Chief Deputy Clerk Arthur Osborne’s email account. Alvarez told Soto that deleting email strings and entire email accounts was a violation of the Florida Public Records Act, but he was told by Soto not to worry about it, according to the lawsuit. A similar instance happened again in February, when Alvarez discovered that emails about a public records request were deleted from his and his assistant’s computer. With only the IT director and Soto having access to his computer, he confronted Soto about it and he was again told to let it go.
Other allegations in the lawsuit include Ramirez asking Alvarez to assist several friends, employees and political supports on legal matters, which is unethical in his position as gener
al council to the Osceola Clerk of Court, and hiding narcotics found in an employee snack room to avoid bad press.
When called to respond to these allegations, Ramirez said he has been advised by counsel not
to comment.
On the day he was fired, Alvarez handed Ramirez a letter stating that he was forced to contact the Florida Bar ethics hotline over the several occasions of being requested to destroy public records and delete emails. Ramirez immediately sent the letter to the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office, and said in a March 18 press release that the office was not conducting a criminal investigation.
“They informed me the attorney-client relationship has deteriorated to the point where I cannot ethically represent you, and I must not commit a crime by destroying public records,” said Alvarez in the letter. “Mr. Ramirez, Jennifer’s conduct is criminal and by allowing her to continue and asking me to comply with her request, you are violating the law. It is my legal and ethical duty again to recommend to you not to cover up her acts or support them.”

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