Council chairman under fire after more messages released in Niblock investigation
The Marco Island City Council chairman is under fire from some members of the community after emails, text and voice messages came to light regarding his involvement in the investigation of former City Manager Lee Niblock.
Marco resident Bill McMullan announced during Monday’s City Council meeting his intention to file complaints with both the state bar and ethics commission against Chairman Jared Grifoni after alleging Grifoni and Councilor Larry Honig attempted to cover up the battery complaint made against Niblock.
“Never in our history has our Marco paradise been under such a cloud of government incompetence and immoral and illegal tactics by our elected officials,” McMullan said. “Respected female members of our community sought guidance from at least two council members by reporting egregious violations of sexual battery allegedly perpetrated by the most senior employee in the city, the city manager.”
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The State Attorney’s Office charged Niblock with misdemeanor battery stemming from an incident on Jan. 31 in which he was accused of making inappropriate comments and physical overtures toward Marco Island Academy Principal Melissa Scott.
In a sworn statement to investigators, Scott stated Niblock "grabbed her so that he could hug her and attempted to kiss her on the lips, but she turned her head and he kissed her on the cheek. Lee then pulled on her and asked for another kiss, but she refused and exited the car."
Scott said Niblock also offered to mentor Scott and help her become the next city manager after he retired.
After a warrant was issued for his arrest, Niblock turned himself in on April 26. He has since pleaded not guilty to the charge and is set to be arraigned on May 23.
The 33-page investigation report filed by the Collier County Sheriff’s Office also shed light on the level of involvement of the City Council.
According to the report, Marco Island Academy Chair Jane Watt contacted Honig on Feb. 2 about the incident.
Honig took notes during the conversation and produced 22 items that he found concerning. He confronted Niblock on Feb. 5 about the incident during a meeting at Hoot’s and told City Attorney Alan Gabriel the following day that Niblock’s defense was “completely untenable.”
The report also noted that Grifoni contacted Scott on Feb. 6 and advised that she needed protection if she wanted to pursue charges against Niblock.
Scott told investigators that Grifoni offered for the city to apologize days later while warning of a potential defamation lawsuit by Niblock. A resolution agreement was also proposed in which both Scott and Niblock would apologize but no admission of guilt would be provided.
In the report, Grifoni was also questioned about whether he said Marco Island Academy would remain a legislative priority in becoming a hurricane shelter if Scott signed the resolution agreement. Grifoni denied those claims in his interview with investigators and detailed his continued level of support for the school after the incident occurred during Monday's meeting.
Niblock was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 20, four days after Police Chief Al Schettino informed the council of the complaint against Niblock. He was fired with cause on March 19 after it was determined actions he had taken were actionable.
A separate battery complaint in Alachua County was also filed in March in which Niblock was accused of placing his hand on the thigh of a prospective employee before lifting the hem of her skirt and trying to kiss her on the lips.
That alleged incident occurred in 2017 when Niblock was the Alachua County manager.
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Prior to Monday’s council meeting, Grifoni and Gabriel downplayed any claims of interference or pressuring Scott into not coming forward with her complaint.
"All actions taken by myself, the city attorney, and the city were done out of respect for her request for privacy," Grifoni said in a statement on April 26. "It was our utmost concern to be considerate of the victim’s wishes and to reassure her and her employer that whatever the outcome of the investigation, the city’s relationship with the victim and her employer would not be negatively affected and that we would continue to have an excellent working relationship."
Additional emails, text and voice messages that were collected as part of the investigation have also been released that led to the firestorm Monday evening and calls for Honig and Grifoni’s resignations.
On Feb. 9, Niblock texted Honig about a conversation with Grifoni referencing Marco Island Police Chief Al Schettino’s email to council notifying them of an investigation into an unnamed employee.
“Interestingly the chair called me this morning and I believe his hair was on fire,” Niblock wrote. “He was livid about the email that went out last night well after the time anyone could have it withdrawn. He also saw this as nothing short of a police chief coupe against the manager and the City Council.”’
Niblock later texted Honig that he was “truly the victim” and “we both recognize what needs to be done at MIPD and a firewall (temporary) has been erected.”
On Feb. 10, Niblock sent a text message to Grifoni with the proposal of “announcing a cooperative legislative agenda” that may have included a “funding component” in order to keep the complaint from becoming a public spectacle.
McMullan took the message as the city attempting to bribe Scott and Marco Island Academy for its silence.
Additionally, Milton Collins, an attorney with Weiss, Serota, Helfman, Cole & Bierman, sent an outline of resolution terms to Marco Island Academy attorney Shawn Arnold. The outline indicated Niblock would not admit or deny allegations “solely for the purposes of obviating the need for public proceedings concerning the alleged conduct.”
While half of the attendees of Monday’s meeting questioned Grifoni and Honig’s involvement, the other half voiced support of their character and referred to the accusations as a witch-hunt.
“I’d like everyone to know that both Mr. Honig and Mr. Grifoni have been doing everything in the best interest of this community,” Joseph Doyle said.
After reiterating his desire to protect the privacy and wishes of Scott, Grifoni also addressed the accusations and McMullan’s desire to file ethics and bar complaints.
“The fact that you would come up here and threaten that based upon what would be a frivolous complaint highlights just how low some are willing to stoop,” Grifoni said.
Beside facing calls for his ouster from some members of the community, Grifoni also faced tough questions from some colleagues on the dais.
Councilor Joe Batte suggested Grifoni consider turning over the gave to Vice-Chair Charlette Roman until the legal process ran its course, but Grifoni called Batte’s comments inappropriate.
Councilor Bob Brown also questioned how the resolution agreement terms were negotiated given that the majority of council were left in the dark regarding the incident.
Gabriel said Scott’s legal counsel had asked the city to come up with a resolution agreement so that she would not have to come forward with her complaint against Niblock.