AUGUST 3, 2022 | FLAGLERLIVE
Emperor Joe Mullins, it turns out, has no clothes. At least when he’s under oath.
Mullins, a Flagler County commissioner for almost four years and chairman of the commission since November, has portrayed himself as a business expert, an economic development leader and a champion of conservative fiscal responsibility.
On Tuesday, Mullins affirmed in a signed court document that “despite having many companies,” those are “essentially insolvent, riddled with debt that exceeds revenues,” and that he is personally “insolvent, manages debt payments in excess of his income,” that he is subject to demands from lenders and the IRS, “and is potentially bankrupt.”
Mullins in a court hearing in May testified that when he was hit with a federal lawsuit over fraud claims (after clients promised tickets to the Master’s golf tournament in Georgia did not get their tickets), his Mullins Management company “went belly up,” and he almost went to jail. “We had a really tough year that year, got upside down $2 million, and I had to get that or I was headed to jail for not being able to send those — send the client’s money back,” he testified. “So I leveraged everything I had to get out of that.”
Mullins has faced two such lawsuits, one of them, a $2.4 million fraud claim, still ongoing, and mirroring the same issues that led to the first lawsuit. The lawyer questioning him appeared to be under the impression that it was the latter lawsuit Mullins was referring to. But later in the direct examination, Mullins referred to his brush with jail as happening “three years ago,” which suggests he may have been referring to the earlier lawsuit, which was settled.
The documents, paired with Mullins’s testimony under oath, paint the most revealing and contradictory portrait to date of Mullins’s finances, revealing in his own words that the “at least seven companies” he owns or owned under different names are all sole proprietorships usually involving just him, such as Mullins Sports and Entertainment. Mullins, in other words, runs one-man shops. And those shops are a maze of leveraged and juggled real estate ventures that even Circuit Judge Chris France was confused about: “At this stage of the case no sufficient information has been provided relating to the valuation of the companies, their assets or their liabilities,” the judge wrote, with that sentence casting the court’s doubt on the figures Mullins provides about those companies in his disclosures.
The documents, obtained by FlaglerLive, are all public records. They are part of the divorce proceedings Mullins has been engaged in with his wife this year in Flagler court. The dispute with his wife is a private matter and is not being reported here except for certain contextual elements, just as they have not been in the past. Mullins’s finances, disclosed through those proceedings, are a different matter, however, because they pertain, as a public, elected official–and as chairman of the Flagler County Commission–to his claims to business expertise and his claims of being an eminently qualified steward of the public treasury and the public interest. And they point to unexplained disparities between the financial disclosure form he submitted to the state and the numbers he revealed in court.
The documents and the testimony pleading what amounts to poverty–to get out of paying emergency support for his wife and child,–contrast like night and day with the Ferrari-driving, high-flying jet-setter who fills his social media pages with selfies from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort to the Daytona Speedway to events across the state and out of state. The reality, he testified, is that others often pay for his trips or entries to events or meals, including companies, clients, friends and Flagler County government (“My lodging sometimes is paid through the County, sometimes it’s not,” he claimed. A partial accounting of expenses the county has paid for him amounts to $5,000.).
“So you own four, five, six, or seven companies and everybody pays for everything but you, is that correct?” an incredulous attorney asked Mullins in his court testimony in May, after going through innumerable instances where Mullins said he had not paid for this or that ticket, this or that meal, this or that event.
“No. I pay for things,” he said.
Mullins Testified at the hearing and attested in a written document that while on paper he lists $18 million in assets, he has liabilities of $18.755 million, that “my notes now are very severely due and they’re being called by banks,” that he’s paid his divorce-attorney bill of $10,000 by putting it on a credit card, and that he’s “juggling” mortgages and loans, without always being able to make payments. “Like right now we’re back on some of them,” he testified.
Mullins listed a net worth of $515,602 on his most recent financial disclosure form as an elected official, required by state disclosure rules as part of his run for re-election, and which he signed on oath on May 31 in a notarized document. Yet in the wording of the verified motion Mullins signed on Monday, and that his attorney, Michael Chiumento III, filed with the court, Mullins states that he has a “Total net worth of (-$675,192.16).”
Mullins listed “filing year + year-to-date” income of $1.511 million on his financial disclosure form, yet in his court pleadings he reported that his 2021 tax returns show an adjusted gross income of negative $17,123.
This is the context of Mullins’s disclosures: In May, Mullins and his wife appeared in a hearing at the Flagler County courthouse before France, addressing his wife’s motion for $5,000-a-month temporary support. Mullins argued that he could not pay it, that he had been paying $1,200 a month (his wife contended that she received $500 twice a week) and providing his wife with living and utility accommodations and a car.
France in an order ruled that Mullins was to pay his wife $4,000 a month starting on May 10, pay his wife’s divorce attorney, Kenneth Morse, $5,000, and continue to pay for his wife’s rent, utilities, insurance and certain amenities for a child Mullins and his wife have in common.
The order led to the Aug. 2 motion to modify the order, in which Mullins signs the declaration of the dire state of his finances, and, through his attorney, includes some 300 pages of supporting documents, including tax returns, an image of an overdue IRS tax bill, dated Dec. 6, 2021, for $23,279 (for 2020 taxes), financial affidavits and personal financial statements, and numerous other documents.
At the May hearing, Mullins described himself as “a county commissioner, and I have real estate holdings,” and said he made $52,000 as a commissioner, lowballing his actual salary by $8,000: he actually makes $59,637. During the hearing Mullins did not claim that he runs the county, as he did to a Florida Highway Patrol trooper when trying to get out from paying a ticket in June. But he did draw the court’s ire on different occasions. At one point the attorney had asked him how much he was selling a Mercedes for. Mullins seemed reluctant to give an answer, other than to claim it would go “probably about $10,000 less than owed on it.” The attorney tried again, and Mullins evaded by starting to talk about the problem with the car.
“Sir, just answer the questions that you’re being asked,” Judge France admonished him. “You tend to go on and on.”
“All right. I don’t know. You want me to just say that?” Mullins snapped
“I want you to follow my instructions,” France, not a judge to be trifled with on the slightest matters of court conduct, told him.
The line of questioning led the attorney to ask about the Ferrari Mullins drives. He said he did not own the car, but that his Mullins Sports and Entertainment company owned it (even though Mullins is the company). The payments, however, were being made by Mullins Management. The attorney showed him proof.
“Yeah. It’s paid by Mullins Management,” Mullins conceded. “But that company is no longer in business.”
“There’s still a Ferrari. Is that right?” the attorney asked him.
“It is. And that’s trying to be sold. They’ve got it at a dealership. And, unfortunately, we’re seeing it upside down as well.”
The hearing took place on May 3. Mullins was pulled over, speeding in the Ferrari on I-95, the following June 19. In court, Mullins had said the Ferrari was “used at events.” Attempting to avoid points on his license, he wrote the judge after being pulled over that he was “preparing for family coming into town and running behind in my work schedule rushing between meetings.” It’s not clear what meetings could have been taking place in Flagler County on a Sunday morning at 8:45 a.m., when he was ticketed.
In his testimony Mullins said he sold his condo at the Aliki high-rise in Flagler Beach last October for $900,000, netting $300,000 (his mortgage total had been $600,000).
“Where did the other $300,000 go?” Morse, the lawyer, asked him.
“It went to–it was an exchange, and it went to another company. It was not owned in Joseph Mullins,” Mullins replied, before clarifying: “It was paid toward debt that I owed with my company.”
“Okay,” the lawyer tried again, “I asked you it was paid to who? Who is who?”
“It was to banks,” Mullins said. “To different banks and different lenders.”
“Excuse me. You said you paid it to a company. Your company. Which company?”
“I said the debt was paid to different lienholders that had it,” Mullins said. “It was liened up with other stuff.”
“And so the $300,000 roughly from the sale was paid to which company, however? One of your companies, you said. Which one?”
Mullins finally answered directly: “Jessie Farrell,” one of his LLC’s incorporated, he said, in Florida and Georgia, that “holds real estate.”
When the lawyer asked him about the value of one of the property he owns, Mullins claimed it was losing value. “So while all the real estate values in the world are going up, yours is going down, is that right?” the lawyer asked him. The lawyer and Mullins again sparred as Mullins would not answer the questions.
In February 2022, Mullins, under his own name–not a company name–bought a condominium at 619 West Hammock Beach Drive, for $660,000, according to Flagler County Property Appraiser figures, which Mullins also cited in court. “That was part of that exchange that was done, and it’s to replace that rental property that was sold. So it ties into a bigger loan,” Mullins said, only to immediately respond to the lawyer that he had not used the $300,000 proceeds to pay for the new purchase. “We rent it out quite a bit,” he said, in essence describing what amounts to a vacation rental. “It’s also rented out to be able to get income to pay for it.” He pays a $2,000 a month mortgage on the property.
Though he bought it in February, it does not appear to be listed on the financial disclosure form. The only property listed as “personal” is his Pine Street house in Bunnell. Under liabilities, a Members First Mortgage is listed for $524,816, roughly echoing the $500,000 loan he told the lawyer, in court, he took out for the condominium.
The lawyer was attempting to explore contradictions between Mullins’s claims of relative indigence and his frequent-flier miles to event after event just between last August and May, by cataloguing Mullins’s own social media pictures to such a point that it could make Mullins’s constituents wonder when he had any time left for county business: a Rolling Stones concert, a Miranda concert, a Pitbull concert, a Beach Boys concert, Camping World Stadium in Orlando (“I was invited there by Mercedes”), the Corona Cigar Lounge, a Trump event in Washington, D.C., Benihana in Lake Buena Vista (he loves Japanese food, it was revealed in court), a trip to New York in December (“I was taken up there with a client to look at some dealings. They’re looking at purchasing my apartment complexes”), to Provo, Utah (“meeting with a client for the Masters”), Pittsburgh, Penn. (“a political candidate that wanted me to come in and speak for him”), numerous out-of-town or out-of-state restaurants, from Sarasota to Dallas, Texas, an Atlanta Falcons party, the Seminole Hard Rock casino, the Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis, the Jan. 28 trip to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, where he said he was “an invited guest.”
“Invited guest. So that didn’t cost you anything, I suppose, either,” the lawyer asked him.
“Well, it cost you something to go down, and, you know, you go pay for a hundred dollar room,” Mullins said.
He also referred to an apartment complex he owns in Georgia: “I’ve got another loan with an apartment complex on it. It was appraised at $6.5 [million], the loan is 5.9, and we lost all the tenants but four out of a 56 unit,” he said. That claim may not be accurate.
The description fit that of Clara Point Apartments, a 56-unit complex complex in Columbia County, Ga., that has been in the news because of its deplorable conditions–and because of an ongoing investigation by Columbia County authorities, according to Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson, who spoke about it on an Augusta radio show today. “It’s like an investigation with law enforcement really, when the county gets involved. In code enforcement gets involved. We go through that process,” Johnson said. The property was fined over fire alarms not being installed, then more serious issues emerged.
“We needed to find out if these aren’t habitable and if there are other issues besides the life safety issues, and we did do that this week,” Johnson said. “Some of these units just were not fit for what I would say, you know, as far as being inhabited by a human being–the water intrusion, the insects and those sorts of things. Those are big issue. Roaches, ants.” He added: “We went over this week and we we went through all 20 of the occupied units. There are several units that are unoccupied, and they are in all states of repair. Some of them have missing sheetrock, some of them don’t have power. And my understanding is the powers off to all of those now because they are under renovation.”
In court, Mullins explained it this way: “We had a fire. We had mold issues where the fire had created some problems, and it started in others, and then we — you know, we just lost the tenants. So the banks are very concerned. They’re trying to work with me. We did a lot of — what is that stuff called where the government deferred the payments with us for a while? And now they’re coming back due, and we’re having to pay when we can. But, again, we’re paying one note but another note may be four or five months behind at that point. So it’s a juggling game right now.”