Osceola County Clerk of Court Armando Ramirez is hoping for a third term while leading an office filled with substantiated claims of nepotism, budget issues and policy violations, according to a report.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Ramirez, alleging he was complicit to the misconduct rampant in his office as well as arguing they were unjustly terminated after cooperating with a May investigation of the Clerk’s Office.
Whistleblower complaints filed in February outlined misconduct among employees at the Clerk’s Office as well as failure of oversight by Ramirez himself.
Calls to Ramirez’s office and a number provided on his election application were not returned for comment.
However, in an email dated June 23 from Ramirez to his staff, the clerk addressed the misconduct issues and stated he had called for the investigation into his office.
“I wanted to know what happened and what we needed to do to make improvements,” Ramirez wrote, adding the violations are “not acceptable.”
“I expect every employee in our office to be honest, ethical, and accountable,” he wrote, adding he had terminated an unnamed “senior employee” and put another on unpaid suspension for several weeks.
One employee remains employed by the Clerk’s Office despite consistently being named in the 48-page report of the investigation conducted by Tampa-based firm Brown Law and Consulting.
The report outlines multiple instances of misconduct by Deputy Clerk Jennifer Soto, who is engaged to Ramirez’s son, John. Those substantiated instances include being paid by the Clerk’s Office while working at John Isla Insurance, a business Soto holds a financial interest in.
“Jennifer [Soto] claimed that she still received calls and engaged in Clerk work off-site,” the Brown report states, adding the investigation found multiple days of Soto being at the Kissimmee insurance company while being paid for her deputy clerk duties.
Additionally, Soto was found to have left work during normal business hours to workout at a crossfit gym she has an investment in and encouraged multiple other employees to leave work to workout with her.
The report found rampant issues with absenteeism, tardiness, productivity and accountability for employees with a personal relationship with Soto who would regularly not be in the office while being paid.
During the inspections of several employee badges and logins, the Brown investigation found instances of employees coming to the office for work as few as six of the 18 workdays in November 2019 while still being paid.
The investigation acknowledged instances when an employee may not use their badges because they followed behind another employee to get into a door where an employee badge is required to unlock the entry. However, the investigators stated it was near impossible for employees not to have any footprint in an entire day if the employee was in the office.
Additional findings discovered Soto requesting employees leave their posts at the Clerk’s Office to perform personal tasks for the deputy clerk, such as text messages between Soto and her sister, Carmen Soto, who worked at the Clerk’s Office.
Those text messages showed Jennifer Soto needed Carmen Soto to babysit and stop by the bank at Jennifer Soto’s request, requiring Carmen Soto to leave her duties at the clerk’s office.
Investigators did question the motives of the whistleblowers, acknowledging these issues have been ongoing for “an extended time” without complaint.
The investigators theorized in the conclusion of their findings that one whistleblower, Natalie Bryan, who served as executive director to the clerk, may have filed her complaints after her plans to become inspector general didn’t materialize.
Bryan stated in her complaint letter that she feared retaliation by Jennifer Soto by speaking out. Bryan and another whistleblower, Maxine Lang, who was Bryan’s executive assistant, voiced concerns that Ramirez may be manipulated and “the victim of psychological abuse” by Soto.
Clerk of Court challenger State Rep. John Cortes wasn’t completely surprised by the allegations and claims about Ramirez’s office. Cortes, a friend of Ramirez’s for 28 years, said he forwarded the information he was provided about the allegations and the Brown investigation to the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office.
“The report opened my eyes even more,” he said. “I’ve been hearing a lot from other people.”
Cortes himself is mentioned in the investigation report as his wife works for the clerk’s Human Resources department. Bryan alleged Jennifer Soto wanted Caridad Cortes removed from her position because John Cortes was running against Ramirez for clerk of courts.
The investigation found that discussions occurred about moving Caridad Cortes’ position due to her husband’s filing but Amy Kryszan in Human Resources stated no move was required.
“I don’t like the unfair tactics and corruption,” John Cortes said. “Let’s get the courthouse back to where it’s supposed