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Ramirez: General counsel ‘deviated from my directive’

Posted on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm

By Ken Jackson
Staff Writer
Personnel records from the Osceola County Clerk of Court office obtained late last week revealed that former General Counsel and Public Information Officer Adam Alvarez, fired by Clerk of Court Armando Ramirez on March 4, may have been let go for simply doing his job.

Armando Ramirez

Armando Ramirez

Statements and a discipline review in the file showed Alvarez released a document to the media on the Friday prior to his Tuesday dismissal.
The document was part of a case under investigation by the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office. He had been instructed in the past to get approval from both Ramirez and Chief Deputy Clerk Jennifer Soto prior to the release of any public documents.
Contacted on Monday, Ramirez said that policy was in place to ensure the request doesn’t jeopardize the evidence in any investigation by the state Attorney’s Office or Florida Department of Law Enforcement, even if he feels secure the public information officer is well-versed in the law.
“The head of an agency should always review anything that goes to the media,” he said. “If someone makes an error, I get the blame. And sometimes, document requests are subject to exemptions, like if the person in question is in law enforcement. This was a deviation from my directive.”
Arthur “Beau” Osborne, Ramirez’s original chief deputy clerk, is now working at the Orange County Courthouse and assisting the Clerk’s Office there. He said former Clerk’s Office spokesman Marvin Cortner would run matters that would be going to the media by Ramirez first as a professional courtesy, but there was no filter on any other requests.
Later, that changed.
“Right before I was fired, he wanted everything filtered through him,” Osborne said. “If there was something that stirred controversy, he would wait for the situation to die down to release any information. What he didn’t realize is that people don’t forget they’ve asked for something, they’re asking for it for a reason.”
Osborne said having to clear all document requests through the clerk is not a standard operating procedure in other counties such as Orange.
“In a well-run Clerk’s office, a clerk doesn’t want his hands on any request, to remove any indication of impropriety. The PIO, and if he has a staff, would have the final authority over that,” he said. “Ask the clerks in 66 other counties and they’d say something similar.
“Mr. Ramirez doesn’t see the improprieties the public sees. Something may be within the bounds of state statutes but not pass the public’s smell test.”
Statements in Alvarez’s file also showed that in early November, he dealt directly with staff members about ceasing solicitations from vendors for the department’s Christmas party. The following week, he was disciplined and issued a written warning for not following the chain of command by reporting to Soto, his immediate supervisor, and also for “shying away from handling the media,” a major function of the PIO.
Since Alvarez is both a former law enforcement officer and public defender, his personal contact information is exempted from public records requests. His file did reveal an email address; he has yet to reply to a request for comment sent on Friday.
Alvarez and Ramirez share much the same background. According to Ramirez’s biography on the Clerk’s Office website and Alvarez’s résumé, both grew up in New York (Ramirez was born in Puerto Rico), enlisted in the U.S. Army (Alvarez attended West Point but left when his father died) and served with the New York Police Department.
In his acceptance letter to Alvarez dated July 29, a representative of Ramirez’s office made it clear that employment with the Clerk’s Office is on an at-will basis.
“As an at-will employee, you will be free to terminate your employment at any time,” the letter from a Human Resources specialist said. “Likewise, the clerk will have the right to reassign you, change your compensation, or to terminate your employment at any time, with or without cause or advance notice.”
Ramirez said Monday he won’t be replacing the position, which paid $75,000. Public document requests will now go through the Human Resources department, and the county has retained Orlando law firm of Bell & Roper to handle legal matters.
“It is less costly to work that way than to keep in-house counsel on salary,” he said.
Since taking office in January 2013 after winning election the November prior, Ramirez has hired, then fired, four top administrators: Alvarez, Osborne, Human Resources Director Marta Moczo-Santiago and interim Finance Director Ken Sokolosky. Additionally, Cortner, Finance Director Tiffany Morton and Information Technology Director Michael Johnson all resigned (Johnson later claimed Ramirez fired him when he presented his resignation letter); Morton and Cortner said afterward they left in order to maintain their professional reputation.