JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Duval County's Clerk of Courts is fighting back against allegations he wrongfully gave bonuses to his employees.
Here's how the controversy breaks down:
- Jim Fuller is under fire for planning to hand out $174,000 in bonuses at a time when the city is slashing jobs and services.
- Calling that a little too much "play money," the City Council voted last night to take that money back.
- Adding fuel to the fire, is that according to documents from the Supervisor of Elections Office, many of Fuller's employees who received bonuses, also contributed to his failed re-election campaign.
Now, after 20 years in public service, Fuller is finding himself having to answer questions about his character, something he's never had to do before.
He told Action News, "This has really irritated me after 20 years, that this has come up." Fuller says he decided to pull back his latest request for bonuses for his staff.
Clerk of Courts candidate John Winkler said, "I'm happy to see that the City Council has shown a little backbone here in going after a claw back on the bonuses that have not been paid out yet."
Winkler ran against Fuller in 2008. He uncovered public documents which show the clerk gave out bonuses as far back as 2006. He said, "He had over $100,000 in bonuses that he gave to his three dozen assistants that year. At least nine of them contributed to his campaign, with the maximum $500 contributions."
Fuller denies the bonuses come from city funds. And he calls the allegations that he's showing favoritism to staff members who contributed to his campaign "ridiculous."
He said, "It all has to do with state money. It has nothing to do with the city, or the city's money, or people getting laid off from the city, or whatever. It has to do with my state budget. And that money can't be mixed. It can't be used for city functions or a county function."
Winkler responded, "State money, city money. Who pays the state money? The taxpayers. Who pays the city money? The taxpayer does."
Fuller said he's disappointed, that he's being unfairly criticized. And he says he intends to sort out this mess as soon as he returns from vacation. "There's a lot of confusion about it. So, I've instructed them today to pull that back. And next week, I'll review all that. And I'll make a determination about what I want to do."
Meanwhile, the city is working to find out if the bonuses are even legal. Under state law, city employees are allowed only one bonus per year. Action News has learned that more than a dozen of Fuller's employees were on track to get two bonuses this year.
Fuller's time in office is winding down. He cannot run again, because of term limits. Winkler is running for the position, with no party affiliation. And the other three opponents who are vying for his job are also responding to the controversy.
Democrat Brenda Priestly-Jackson emailed Action News a statement saying, "The role of the Clerk of the Circuit Court is to provide not only high quality services to our fellow citizens and neighbors, but also to maintain the public trust as a fiduciary agent of the tax payers. This public trust must be honored while campaigning for office, serving in office and when leaving office. Although it may be clearly within the authority of the clerk to determine budgetary priorities and allocations, this must at all times be carefully evaluated and considered in light of the current financial hardships and sacrifices being made by our fellow citizens. Public servants and elected officials have a duty to be good stewards of the public trust, accountable, fair and just, and must avoid at all times the appearance of a disregard for these values or ideals."
Republican Ronnie Fussell's statement said, "While we appreciate the hard work of all of our city and state employees, in this economic environment our elected officials should not be issuing bonuses. I understand there are times when people are entitled to overtime compensation and contractual increases that meet the standards set forth in the fair labor law. However, when we are reducing pay and laying people off it's tough to justify arbitrary bonuses for a few while many are struggling to stay in their homes and put food on the table."
Averrell Maynard Thompson is also running wthout a party affiliation. He said, "Jim Fuller made an error in judgment by using tax dollars to fund the bonuses of his political appointees in this current economic environment."
The new Clerk of Courts will be chosen during the general election in November.