Board: Flagler-Mitchell violated ethics code with sexually explicit photo
Monroe County Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell violated the county’s code of ethics when he sent a sexually explicit photo to a 19-year-old woman, the county Board of Ethics ruled Thursday.
The board had been reviewing the matter since January, when it first received a complaint from the woman, Lakaya Sinclair, that Flagler-Mitchell sent her a Facebook message containing a photo of his genitalia and other messages that made her feel uncomfortable.
Flagler-Mitchell, 43, a retired firefighter and married father of eight children, acknowledged sending the photo but said it was done in error and that the image was meant for his wife, whom he said he had been messaging simultaneously with Sinclair. He has also said that the genitalia pictured was not his.
Under the county’s code of ethics, a legislator found to have violated the code can be fined, suspended, or removed from office, although the code is not explicit on how any of those penalties would be enforced.
The investigation determined Flagler-Mitchell specifically violated section 45-13 of the Code of Ethics, which states an official should "pursue a course of conduct which will not raise suspicion among the public that he is likely to be engaged in acts that are in violation of his trust."
The investigation also noted that other women reported similar conduct from Flagler-Mitchell. Specifically, it mentioned that when the District Attorney's Office, which also investigated Sinclair's complaint, turned over its files, the records revealed that 11 other women reported receiving inappropriate or explicit messages and photos from Flagler-Mitchell.
"Thus, in view of the fact that numerous third parties reported similar inappropriate messaging by Mr. Flagler-Mitchell, including on November 24, 2020, we believe that the explanation about intending to send the photo to his wife strains credulity," read the report. "Rather, the conduct reported by Ms. Sinclair appears consistent with a pattern of similar behavior by Mr. Flagler-Mitchell with other women."
A voicemail left for Flagler-Mitchell on his cellphone was not immediately returned.
Flagler-Mitchell was elected in 2014 on the Democratic ticket to represent the county’s 29th District covering portions of northeast Rochester. He is the leader of the Legislature’s Black and Asian Democratic Caucus and is facing a Democratic primary challenge this month from social worker William Burgess.
The board’s decision comes less than two weeks after District Attorney Sandra Doorley determined after an investigation that Flagler-Mitchell committed no crime in sending the photo to Sinclair. Doorley said she turned the records she had amassed during her investigation to the Board of Ethics.
Flagler-Mitchell met Sinclair in September, after a party at her home on Pennsylvania Avenue at which two 19-year-olds were shot and killed. She has said that Flagler-Mitchell, who is an ordained minister, was among a group of elected officials and clergy members visiting the scene. He offered her his business card and the two became friends on Facebook.
“No one should be in a position where they turned to their elected official for help and are met with unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate messages,” Sinclair, who is now 20, wrote in a complaint to county legislators on Jan. 16 calling for his resignation.
The legislator’s political stature was rising when news of the allegations against him broke. The day the allegations first made headlines, Flagler-Mitchell had been named the new president of the local chapter of the NAACP. The group later quietly replaced him.
In light of the allegations against Flagler-Mitchell, Democratic legislators introduced a bill in April that would have provided more stringent definitions and penalties surrounding sexual harassment. That bill was tabled in May.
County Executive Adam Bello, who appoints the members of the ethics board, seized on the investigatory report's conclusions to call on Legislature President Joe Carbone and the Republican majority to pass the Democrats' proposed ethics reforms. The report similarly recommended that county ethics law be changed to "expressly prohibit sexual harassment and unwanted sexual overtures," and to prohibit false statements during investigations.
"Elected officials and community leaders must be held to a higher standard and must be held accountable for their actions," Bello said in a written statement. "That the victim’s credible and corroborated accounts resulted in a violation of an ethics policy with no consequences shows a shameful lack of accountability built into our current system."
The full report of the Board of Ethics investigation, which was carried out by attorney David Rothenberg on behalf of the board, has been submitted to County Executive Adam Bello and made public.
Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeremy Moule, CITY's news editor, contributed to this report. He can be reached email@example.com.