Disgraced Collier deputy manager resigns from secret lobbyist job; more Florida ties revealed, ethics experts weigh in

Rachel Heimann Mercader
Naples Daily News
Sean Callahan

Double-dipping Collier deputy manager Sean Callahan hit the ground running with his secret lobbyist job, securing high-stakes clients during his first month on the job, documents reveal. 

He began his role with the lobbyist firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in March, the same month the county approved his request for an extended Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave of absence, according to his personnel file obtained by The Naples Daily News.

"I just find it perplexing that he thought that he could get away with it," longtime ethics watchdog Ben Wilcox said. 

"I've never heard of anything like this," Wilcox added. "Obviously, it creates the potential for serious conflicts of interest." 

Previous coverage:Collier County deputy manager fired; double-dipping as secret lobbyist, documents reveal

Wilcox is the research director at Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee-based government watchdog nonpartisan research institute dedicated to promoting integrity in government and exposing public corruption.

"It's so messy what he's done. He had access to everything," Commissioner Penny Taylor said. 

FMLA provides job security for employees

FMLA provides job security for employees who must miss work because of their serious health condition, the birth of their children, to care for family members suffering from a serious health condition or for reasons related to their family members’ military service. 

Callahan's request came after he had spent the previous month on intermittent leave. The absence came with pay and benefits continuation, records show, and he did not return until March 25.

Wilcox warned that Callahan may have been using his public position to benefit himself by taking on these lobbying jobs. He added that taxpayers should be asking how he was able to find the time to do all of his lobbying work.

Prior to joining Integrity Florida in 2015, Wilcox worked as a lobbyist and governmental consultant for 15 years.

Callahan was promoted to deputy manager in May 2021, two months after Brownstein announced his hiring to its federal government relations team in Washington, D.C., as a senior policy adviser. The March 3 press release which has since disappeared from the Brownstein website, said that he previously "served at the Collier County Board of County Commissioners."

A "Page Not Found" message now occupies a webpage that previously displayed Sean Callahan's company bio

Like his previous role as executive director of corporate business operations, Callahan agreed to a full-time salaried position, committing to eight hours per day for five days a week.

The transition came with a sizable pay raise, to $170,000 from $113,540.

"Another question is whether he was hired as a lobbyist by this firm because of his connections to local governments in Florida," Wilcox said. 

The Naples Daily News attempted to reached Brownstein for comment in the days leading up to breaking the news that County Manager Mark Isackson fired Callahan for failing to disclose his secondary employment. Hours after the article was published on Jan. 27 Brownstein spokesperson Lara Day wrote in an email that the firm was not aware Callahan was still working with the county and that it was launching an immediate investigation.

Mark Isackson was selected in March to be the next Collier County manager.

Two days later, Callahan resigned from the firm, Day confirmed on Saturday. 

This week, Day told The Naples Daily News that the firm was aware that Callahan was working for the county in the corporate business operations department when he applied for the job.

"The agreement was that he would retire from that role, and move to Washington D.C, once he was hired by Brownstein," Day said.

Callahan has not responded to multiple messages sent to both his work and personal email addresses. Prior to The Naples Daily News' first article about the firing, Callahan did not return phone calls made to both his work and personal numbers. Voicemail recordings confirmed the numbers belonged to Callahan.

Attempts to call both numbers this week revealed that Callahan has since disconnected them. Emails sent to Callahan's wife, Rachel, have not been returned. 

Attempts to reach Callahan at his Naples home this week failed. After knocking on the front door and ringing the doorbell, two adults, a child, and a dog approached the front door. The adults appeared to look through the front door window and proceeded to quickly retreat. 

Politics abroad

During the first 30 days working for the lobbyist firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, he registered as a lobbyist for at least five clients and joined a team working on some of the firm's foreign contracts, such as with Saudi Arabia. By the end of 2021, Callahan was hired by at least 19 clients, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit organization that tracks data on campaign finance and lobbying. 

In addition, according to filings required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), submitted to the Department of Justice, he also registered to advocate in the United States for Cambodia, Egypt, South Korea, and the Liberian International Ship & Corporate Registry (LISCR), a U.S. company that manages Liberia’s ship registry. 

FARA, enacted in 1938, requires “agents” of “foreign principals” to register with the DOJ and to file periodic reports regarding their work. Firms representing foreign corporations or individuals in the U.S and/or taking direction from them in their representation of U.S. affiliates fall within FARA's reach. 

The act also requires registrants to keep and submit relevant records — contracts, correspondence, distribution lists, financial receipts and disbursements, and "such other books, records, and documents as are necessary properly to reflect the activities for which registration is required."

According to one of these filings, on March 3, Callahan discussed Egypt appropriations with John Watson, deputy director, Office of Legislative Affairs at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida. The public filings only include basic details, such as when the meeting occurred and with whom the meeting was with and a general statement about the topic discussed. 

Neither John Watson nor the U.S. Central Command has responded to a request for comment. 

Records submitted to the DOJ also show that Callahan's lobbying work was not limited to periods of authorized absences from his county job. 

For example, while getting paid as a lobbyist for the Arab Republic of Egypt in June 2021, Callahan had an in-person meeting to discuss Egypt with Congressman Ted Deutch, who represents Florida's 22nd district, home to communities in northern Broward County and southeastern Palm Beach County in South Florida. Deutch is also the chairman of the House Ethics Committee. 

Congressman Ted Deutch has not responded to a request for comment. 

 "Did he have special access to congressmen, and to the governments of different counties throughout the state? Of course, yes," Taylor said. "He knew what business was coming in. He knew what business we were doing. He was the face of the business of Collier County and economic development. So of course, he had his pulse on what was going on."

District 4 Commissioner Penny Taylor listens to District 1 Commissioner Donna Fiala during a Board of County Commissioners Meeting Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016 in Naples. The Board of County Commissioners voted on a recommendation to award a contract for the extension of Logan Boulevard from Azalea Drive to the Lee County line to be fulfilled by Bonness, Inc. Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016 in Naples. The board approved the contract.

In June Callahan had a meeting with Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating, to discuss matters related to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The following month he met with Sen. Gary Peters, a junior senator from Michigan to discuss Egypt's appropriations. 

"When you're a commissioner or work for Collier County and you call up, they pay attention...you can almost always get somebody on the phone," Taylor said.  

Ethical concerns

In Florida, ethical violations committed by state employees are investigated by the Florida Ethics Commission. 

The commission's authority comes from the state's Constitution which was revised in 1968 to require a code of ethics for all state employees and non‐judicial officers prohibiting conflict between public duty and private interests. Florida statute allows the commission to interpret and apply Florida's ethics laws by acting on complaints, recommending penalties, and issuing legal opinions.

"I have never come across this particular scenario," said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee attorney and former chairman of Florida's Ethics Commission, serving on the commission from 1984 through 1988. Today, Herron practices as a defense attorney for clients who appear before the commission.

Herron said that the code of ethics for public officers and employees can be found in Chapter 112 (Part III) of the Florida Statutes: F.S. 112.313(7) also prohibits a public officer or employee from having a contractual relationship or employment that will create a "continuing or frequently recurring" conflict of interest, or that would "impede the full and faithful discharge" of public duties.

He said the commission bases its rulings on the principle that one cannot serve two masters. The commission doesn't require proof the accused failed to perform job responsibilities or acted in a corrupt manner, and it attempts to avoid private considerations taking precedent over public responsibilities.  

"I think that comes closest to anything that would impact this," adding that the complex nature of how the commission makes its determination makes it hard for him it saying anything with certainty.

According to the commission's guidebook, an investigation cannot be conducted unless a person files a sworn complaint or a referral is made from the governor, the Florida  Department of Law Enforcement, a State Attorney, or a U.S. Attorney. 

Taylor told the Naples Daily News that the county is looking into Callahan's activities over the past year, and attempting to identify any potential conflicts of interest. 

Anyone can file a complaint with the commission, but the complaint or referral, as well as all proceedings and relevant records, are confidential until the accused requests that such records be made public or until the matter reaches a stage in the commission’s proceedings where it becomes public. 

Herron added that although Callahan no longer works for the county, the commission can still launch an investigation. 

"The way the commission works is that members look at the duties of the public officer,  they look at the interaction with the entities, they're going to look at if the situation would tempt somebody to put their private interest over their public interest or their public duties and responsibilities," he said. "You have to consider all of this and put it all that together. And that's kind of this soup, where this guy's hanging around."

He said that Callahan's government role in Collier County may be a key factor in an ethics investigation.

"It would be significant if the lobbying firm he was working for represented companies and businesses in Florida. But it would also depend on whether those entities had interest before Callahan came into the picture," he added. "Again, that's all part of the soup."

More Florida ties

The Naples Daily News has reviewed hundreds of documents included in his personnel file after filing a public records request.

Callahan began his first government position in 2016 as the operations and veterans services director. 

A year later, Callahan took over the role of executive director of corporate business operations, answering to the deputy county manager, earning an annual salary of $107,954. 

In this role, his responsibilities included providing intergovernmental coordination and serving as the county manager's liaison to constitutional offices, municipalities, and other units of federal, state, and local governments, business and professional organizations, and civic associations.

He was also in charge of coordinating county lobbying efforts, records show. 

"You know, he's expected to be working full time for the county," Wilcox said. "I just can't believe he put himself in that position. The county manager was absolutely right in his response and firing him." 

Screenshot of search results displaying a portion of Sean Callahan's registrations and quarterly activity forms filed with the Clerk of the House of Representatives.

Records show Callahan's final documented leave of absence came in December, but there is no record indicating that he ever returned from this paid leave.

“As soon as (County Manager Mark Isakson) got back, Sean was out. He said he had COVID.” Taylor said. "He kind of went dark and went dark. No one knew what was going on. Then he stopped talking to people. He didn't return phone calls, none of that."

She added that when he was not on a leave of absence "People began to become a little concerned when he would close the door to his office and not let anybody in his office on the second floor."

Penny said her concerns for a possible conflict of interest with Callahan's lobbying work increased after she learned of his ties to Columbia Care.

In 2018, Columbia Care Inc., one of Callahan's clients and one of the largest cultivators, manufacturers and providers of cannabis products in the U.S received authorization to begin dispensing the company’s pharmaceutical-quality cannabis-based medicines in Florida. Last year, the company received approval from the Florida Department of Health’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use (OMMU) to operate as Cannabist. 

Today, Cannabist is now one of 22 approved medical marijuana companies in Florida, according to the Office of Medica Marijuana Use

The Collier County Commission’s last medical marijuana dispensary decision was in December 2018. Three commissioners voted to allow dispensaries with two no votes, but it still failed. 

Lee County has two Cannabist owned locations, one in Bonita Springs and one in Cape Coral; and, according to the company's website, a Cannabist dispensary in Marco Island is "coming soon". 

By the way:Cape Coral's first medical marijuana dispensary preparing to open

More:Collier medical marijuana dispensary ban fuels surge in Bonita Springs

No responsefrom Columbia Care as Marco Island medical marijuana patients wait for dispensary

Last year Callahan registered as a lobbyist for UR-Energy, Inc. Originating in Wyoming, the company has expanded across the county, including a branch in Florida. The company paid Callahan and three other lobbyists $60,000 between July and October. An amount equal to the total lobbying expenditures the company reported in 2021.

From April to December, Callahan and other lobbyists were paid $240,000 by Oracle America, Inc, a computer technology corporation best known for its software products and services such as Java. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, the company has five field locations in Florida, including Naples. 

With 76 paid lobbyists on its payroll, Oracle reported total lobbying expenditures of $11,530,000 in 2021.

Also, Callahan and a group of other lobbyists were paid $200,000 by Skydio, an American manufacturer of drones headquartered in Redwood City, California. In March 2021, Skydio became the first US drone-maker with a valuation of more than $1 billion

Skydio's aggressive lobbying efforts in Florida led to a major decision by the Florida Department of Management Services to limit government agencies to only purchase or otherwise acquire a drone from a manufacturer on a shortlist of approved manufacturers. In accordance with section 934.50, Florida Statutes, as of Jan. 1, 2022, a governmental agency may only purchase from five manufacturers, including Skydio. 

In 2021 the company reported $340,000 in total lobbying expenditures toward 18 lobbyists. 

Connect with breaking news reporter Rachel Heimann Mercader: @racheyy_marie (Twitter) or rachel.heimann@naplesnews.com

Reporter Dan Glaun contributed to this report.