INVESTIGATOR: NO SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE IN ETHICS COMPLAINT ALLEGING ISLAMORADA MAYOR USED PUBLIC FUNDS FOR 2022 CAMPAIGN

a man sitting at a table with a microphone

An ethics complaint filed against Islamorada Mayor Buddy Pinder by a former councilwoman, who alleged he misused public funds for his election campaign, led to an investigation that found no wrongdoing on Pinder’s part. 

The investigation by Elizabeth Miller, attorney with the Florida Attorney General’s Office, recommends the Florida Commission on Ethics, at its April 19 meeting, find no probable cause that Pinder violated the Florida Constitution and state statutes on claims that he misused public funds for his election campaign — as he was no longer running for office by the time a village employee started filming a video thanking voters. Pinder appeared in that video riding his bicycle through Founders Park shortly after the November 2022 election in which voters re-elected him. 

In September 2023, the Florida Commission on Ethics received a complaint from Hobe Sound resident Cheryl Meads. She served on the Islamorada council from 2016 until leaving in January 2020 to take a seat on the South Florida Water Management District’s governing board. She’s one of the original members who started the Islamorada Community Alliance. 

Meads’ complaint contained several allegations, but an investigation was only ordered as to whether public funds were used for Pinder’s 2022 campaign. The complaint alleged that Pinder used a village-contracted employee, Carlos Garcia, to create and post a video on social media to thank voters who supported him. 

Garcia’s company, AML, received a four-month contract in February 2021 to develop a media outreach program for the village. The contract stipulated that Garcia’s company wouldn’t provide any social media or marketing service to political candidates running for village council.

Following the Nov. 8, 2022 election results, which showed Pinder the winner over candidate Sue Miller, Garcia began filming an 86-second video titled “Thank You Islamorada” on Nov. 13, 2022. The video shows segments with Pinder riding his bicycle and displaying a campaign sign and American flag through Founders Park. 

The purpose of the video, according to Pinder, was simply to express his thanks to the community. Garcia was the one who determined the content. The video appeared on the Islamorada Instagram page, Youtube and the village’s social media pages. 

Garcia told the investigator he didn’t receive additional compensation from Pinder for the video.

The allegation raised two potential ethical concerns over whether Pinder received a “disproportionate benefit” that was inconsistent with the proper performance of his duties. The investigation states the political solicitations on Pinder’s bike would support wrongful intent; however, the election had already occurred and he was no longer running for office. Rather, he was a re-elected village council member. 

“Respondent (Pinder) utilized and benefited from a village resource that was equally available to all council members via a council-approved contract with AML, (Garcia’s social media and marketing company),” Miller’s report stated. “Some members chose to use it and others did not. His conduct did not conflict with the contract’s terms. It does not appear that sufficient evidence exists to find the respondent had a wrongful intent with respect to obtaining a disproportionate benefit.”

Miller’s recommendation to the Florida Commission on Ethics is scheduled to be heard at an April 19 ethics commission meeting in Tallahassee. 

Miller deemed other allegations brought forward by Meads against Pinder related to campaign finances weren’t worthy of a deeper investigation.

Jim McCarthy
Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.