YULEE, Fla. – Before going to work for Nassau County, Michael Mullin spent eight years representing Rayonier Inc., one of the county’s largest landowners, as a private sector attorney. Now that relationship has become a source of controversy in the ongoing legal saga between the company and county.
Rayonier filed a new lawsuit Monday claiming that Mullin, now the county manager and county attorney, should be disqualified from taking part in the county’s dealings with the company. The lawsuit says he has a direct conflict of interest and has ignored repeated demands to recuse himself from the dispute.
“This dispute concerns the very land use development on which Mullin represented Rayonier for eight years, and involves the very same documents and state and local regulations Mullin developed on Rayonier’s behalf during his representation of Rayonier,” the complaint states.
In addition to more than $15,000 in damages, the lawsuit seeks a court order that would forbid Mullin from representing the county in matters relating to Rayonier and also bar him from revealing any privileged information he learned while working on the company’s behalf.
At the heart of the dispute is a 24,000-acre site, known as the East Nassau Community Planning Area (ENCPA), which Mullin helped Rayonier prepare for development while working for Rogers Towers, a high-powered Florida law firm. Ground has already broken on the first phase of that project, a planned community called Wildlight.
The lawsuit against Mullin is one of three Rayonier has pending against either the county or its officials. Rayonier previously sued in November 2018 over a feud between the two parties about who’s on the hook for parks infrastructure for the development. The company filed another complaint Tuesday, accusing the county of withholding public records.
“The disputes we’ve had with the county over the last 18 months related directly to matters in which he represented us,” said Alejandro Barbero, a spokesperson for Rayonier.
The public records lawsuit stems from recent allegations made by the county’s former budget director, Justin Stankiewicz, who was fired in December amid an investigation into $1,000 that went missing from the county's safe. Stankiewicz claims it was retaliation for refusing to delete text messages related to the county’s business with Rayonier.
That’s a claim Mullin denies. “I’ve never told him (to do) that – that’s a categorical lie,” he said Tuesday.
Even though Stankiewicz was officially fired without cause, Mullin told News4Jax that he was let go because he could no longer be trusted to handle the county’s finances. “I didn’t have that trust anymore because we couldn’t come to a conclusion about the $1,000. None of it made sense,” he said.
The text messages are worth noting because Rayonier has requested all documents and text messages from the county connected to the company's dealings as part of its lawsuit against the county. The county has not produced any texts in response.
“Now Justin comes in and presents hundreds of them,” Barbero said. “We found that very disturbing that the county is trying to conceal records from the public.”
It’s unclear whether the texts would be considered public record. Attorney Rhonda Peoples-Waters, who has no connection to the case, told News4Jax she does not believe they would be public because they were sent on personal devices and did not appear to influence county business.
News4Jax reached out to Mullin for comment on the lawsuits. We’ll update this story when we receive his response.