Kevin Karnes denies romantic relationship drove promotion decisions

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Lee County Clerk of Courts Kevin Karnes had a sexual relationship with a woman who later enjoyed a significant promotion and pay raise. But an outside investigation determined prior romances played no role in hires or promotions in his office.

“The findings of the independent audit speak for themselves; all claims against me were determined unsubstantiated,” Karnes said. “This was nothing more than an attempt of political theater resulting in the taxpayers of Lee County paying $13,500 to investigate claims that were both false and inaccurate.”

Audio obtained this week shows Karnes spoke extensively about the inner workings of the office, and he continues to face criticism. Karnes on Aug. 23 faces opponent Liza King in a Republican Primary. This will be the first time Karnes stands for election after being appointed to the constitutional office in March by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Karnes worked in the office for 14 years before his appointment, most recently as chief operating officer under longtime Clerk of Courts Linda Doggett. When Doggett announced her retirement in December, Karnes appeared the natural choice to succeed her. But after a bevy of complaints were filed by employees in the office, some question whether he should serve in a leadership role.

Anonymous complaints filed against Karnes related to a number of subjects including whether he campaigned taxpayer time and wastefully updated the organization’s seal to have Karnes’ name appear, even with an election months away.

But the allegations of sexual favoritism stand out as the most salacious.

Outside firm Brown Law & Consulting came on to investigate complaints against Karnes and ultimately cleared him of any wrongdoing. In an hour-long interview, he acknowledged a personal relationship with two women who have worked in the office.

“He has had sexual relationships with many of the women who work for him and promoted them to management because of the nature of their sexual relationships,” reads an anonymous complaint filed with the office’s Inspector General. “It is unfair to the citizens of Lee County and the employees of the Clerk’s office to have someone uphold this position and use his position of perceived power and influence.”

In one instance, an employee in the office left in 2018 for another job but was rehired a year later by Doggett, with Karnes’ support. Karnes said he did not initially tell Doggett that he and the female employee had a short-lived relationship shortly after the employee left the office but that had ended before she was rehired.

In taped testimony to Brown Law & Consulting, Karnes said he made the relationship known before a final decision to rehire the woman was made.

“When we made — Linda made the decision, because I wanted to make very clear this was her decision — after we decided on the business need with the position, I did disclose to her we had a personal relationship outside of the office,” Karnes testified.

Since the employee’s return to the office in 2019, her salary has jumped from about $51,900 to $89,250, a bump in part because her position has changed. But Karnes said the prior relationship had no influence on increases in pay, either while Doggett still served as Clerk or now that Karnes holds the job.

Karnes stressed the woman was a highly evaluated employee.

Complaints also alleged another woman in a management position accepted a promotion despite holding less credentials than predecessors and suggested the ascendancy related to a sexual relationship with Karnes. But Karnes denied to investigators ever having a relationship with the woman.

A report from Brown Law & Consulting ultimately determined the employee “had no personal romantic relationship with Karnes, so this could not have influenced her hire and advancement.”

When those findings were first published, King criticized Karnes for any improper mingling with staff.

“Having an affair with a subordinate is never ethically appropriate and shows a complete lack of personal and professional judgment by Kevin Karnes,” she said in a statement to NBC-2.

Other critics also suggest Karnes, who has stressed his appointment by DeSantis in mailers to Republican voters, evaded scrutiny before landing his promotion.

“If DeSantis knew all the scandals and shenanigans of Kevin Karnes, the Governor would have never appointed him,” suggested Chris Crowley, a former Lee Republican State Committeeman.

But sources close to Karnes say the complaints were frivolous and questioned the timing of reports being published close to the GOP Primary.

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