Florida CFO announces probe into court clerks’ ties to collection agency snared in bribery case

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Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel
·4 min read
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Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis announced this week his plan to quiz Orange County Clerk of Courts Tiffany Moore Russell and other county clerks who had business dealings with Penn Credit, a debt collection agency entangled in a federal bribery case.

“The purpose of the review is to determine to what extent Clerk of Court operations would be disrupted if Penn Credit’s license to operate as a consumer credit agency is revoked,” Patronis spokeswoman Audrey Walden said in an email Tuesday.

Patronis requested Florida court clerks to self-report within 30-days on whether Penn Credit was among their approved vendors to collect debts, including delinquent fines and court costs. Florida law allows companies like Penn Credit to keep up to 40% of collections.

“CFO Patronis is concerned regarding the charges pending against Penn Credit and the possible attempts to bribe Florida officials,” Walden said. “Therefore, he requested all Florida Clerks of Court respond to his letter within 30 days advising whether their Office contracts with Penn Credit.”

Russell, recently elected without opposition to her second four-year term, cooperated two years ago with a federal probe of Penn Credit and its owner and chief executive, Donald Donagher of Palm Beach Gardens, according to spokesman Dain Weister.

He said Russell “stands ready” to provide assistance to Patronis’ office.

She terminated her office’s contract with Penn Credit in April 2019 after learning that Donagher had been indicted, Weister said.

The state’s Office of Financial Regulation approved Penn Credit’s license in November 2020, despite the pending indictment.

A spokeswoman did not immediately answer when asked Tuesday why the license was approved.

“We are in receipt of the CFO’s letter. We are currently reviewing the issue,” spokeswoman Katie Norris said in an email.

The office, responsible for regulatory oversight of Florida’s financial services industry, reports to a commission made up of Gov. Ron DeSantis and his cabinet, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Patronis, the state’s CFO.

The federal indictment, filed in Illinois, alleged that Donagher spent tens of thousands of dollars “for the purpose of corruptly influencing and rewarding” elected officials in Illinois and Florida, including Russell and the clerk in Brevard County.

The case is not yet set for trial, though a status hearing is scheduled to be held Feb. 19.

Lawyers for the parties are awaiting a judge’s ruling on a defense motion to dismiss the indictment.

According to the indictment, Donagher contributed to some clerks’ re-election campaigns and picked up a $936 tab at a strip club during a clerks convention in West Palm Beach. He has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and five counts of bribery.

Donagher, who lives in a $1.3-million home in Palm Beach County, attempted to persuade clerks of court in Brevard, Orange and St. Johns counties in Florida and in Cook County in Illinois to hire his firm by donating to their re-election campaigns and by making contributions to their favorite charities, court documents alleged.

The indictment said Orange County’s clerk, identified in the document as “Clerk C,” ran the office from November 2014 through March 2019, when the charges were filed. Russell was elected in November 2014 and Donagher met with her about five weeks after her election.

He gave her a $2,500 check for LANES, which stands for Loving Assisting Nurturing Educating & Supporting, a nonprofit mentoring charity for teenage girls, according to the indictment. The day after Russell’s 2014 election, Donagher also sent an email to his employees about her.

“Find out all you can about this woman,” Donagher wrote, according to the indictment.

“It seems the deal is that when people want deals to happen in Orange County, large contributions are made and then the deal happens the very next day. Look into that. Look into Facebook to see who her friends are. Look at all the articles in the Orlando Sentinel that involve these deals that she was involved in getting passed through the commissioners,” Donagher wrote.

A Democrat, Russell had served two terms on the Orange County commission, representing District 6, which spans much of the Pine Hills area, Tangelo Park and the International Drive tourism corridor, including the Orange County Convention Center.

She was the youngest candidate ever elected to serve on the commission.

Donagher’s lawyer has denied his client had quid pro quo arrangements with Russell or any other clerks.

Penn Credit served as a debt collector for the Orange clerk from 2011 to 2019, hauling in $19.3 million while also serving Russell’s predecessors Eduardo “Eddie” Fernández and Lydia Gardner.

Two debt-collection agencies currently hold contracts with Russell’s office: Orlando-based Alliance One and Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, one of the nation’s largest government debt collectors.

While Florida law allows government-debt collectors to keep up to 40% of collections as their fee, Russell reduced the percentage permitted by her office from 40% to 25% in 2016.

Collections for the past fiscal years were not immediately available, Weister said.