Solar Sanitation trucks from the Solar Sanitation website.
Republican Sen. Nick DiCeglie’s two partners in a Clearwater garbage hauling company have accused him in civil lawsuits of spending thousands of dollars from the company to pay for his political and personal expenses.
The alleged expenses include “political consulting services, loans to finance his political campaign, membership fees for political clubs and organizations, and rent for property in Tallahassee,” court records show. The allegations cover the time period when DiCeglie was chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party, as well as after he was elected to the state House in 2018. He was elected to the state Senate last year.
DiCeglie, of Indian Rocks Beach in Pinellas County, owns one-third of Solar Sanitation, Inc., a Clearwater company founded in 1980. The other two-thirds are held by two brothers, Anthony DiNardi, Jr. and John DiNardi, who are the senator’s cousins. As of Feb. 17, 2023, DiCeglie is no longer listed as an officer in Florida corporation documents related to Solar Sanitation.
In November, the DiNardis filed a civil suit against the senator in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court contending he had taken money from the company and used it for his own purposes. And in February, the brothers voted him off the Solar Sanitation board of directors. They also barred him from entering the business office, although he remains a part-owner of the firm.
Then, on May 8, they filed a second, more detailed suit against DiCeglie on behalf of Solar itself.
“DiCeglie has embezzled funds from Solar accounts…no less than 40 times from Jan. 20, 2015, to Oct. 25, 2020, as reflected by Solar checks totaling excess of $65,000 used to pay vendors associated with DiCeglie’s political career,” the company’s lawsuit against the senator says.
The two suits contain similar accusations — that the senator used Solar’s money to cover not just the costs of campaigning but also for personal trips, meals and other expenses, such as a vehicle for himself and his wife and paying off his boat loan, court records show.
“This is a case where there are allegations of inappropriate use of funds,” the DiNardis’ attorney, Erik R. Matheney of Tampa, said this week.
The attorney said that in addition to suing, the brothers have reported their accusations to a federal law enforcement agency he would not name. He said he does not know if that agency has launched an investigation.
DiCeglie did not respond to several requests for comment. His Tampa attorney, Richard Salazar, contended that “the allegations have been refuted.”
However, a lengthy legal memorandum that Salazar filed to the court in February for the senator — in response to the initial lawsuit — does not simply deny all the allegations. Instead, he denies some, admits a few, offers explanations for a few more and dismisses several as being beyond the statute of limitations.
DiCeglie’s attorney wrote that it was all right for Solar to pay for some of the lawmaker’s political expenses.
“Since Mr. DiCeglie was becoming a public figure and the face of Solar, it made sense that Mr. DiCeglie’s investment in the community and in politics would directly benefit Solar,” the senator’s response said. “Specifically, the reason Mr. DiCeglie got involved in politics was to benefit Solar.”
Some of the lawsuits’ accusations are flat wrong, according to the senator. For instance, he insisted the senator “did not take a loan or otherwise utilize Solar funds for the purchase of the boat.”
Other Solar expenses could be explained, according to the 108-page memo that attorney Salazar filed in court. For instance, DiCeglie’s attorney said the company had begun paying for the senator’s personal vehicle before the DiNardis became partners, so they didn’t know about the arrangement.
And the attorney wrote that the senator put his wife’s car in the company name just to save $2,500, but the company doesn’t actually own it and doesn’t pay any of its costs.
He said there were simple explanations for other expenses. For instance, while Supernova Digital Communications has done work for the senator’s political campaigns, he said the one time Solar paid the company it was for a job for Solar.
The November suit also accused DiCeglie of getting a Tampa bank to lend Solar $125,000 in 2018, and then a few days later using that money as a loan for his first political campaign for a seat in the state House of Representatives. So far, the brothers contend, he hasn’t paid anything back.
DiCeglie’s attorney said the senator did indeed do that – after getting a go-ahead from John DiNardi.
“DiNardi had no objection to the loans and, in fact, thought it was a fair compromise,” the senator’s reply contended.
In addition to using company money for political campaigning, the lawsuits accuse DiCeglie of spending thousands in Solar money to join various political organizations, including the Governors Club in Tallahassee and the St. Petersburg Republican Club.
In his response, DiCeglie’s attorney argues that he “utilized the Governor’s Club to gain access with lobbyists and local elected officials on the status of their waste-hauling contracts across the state as well as storm debris business opportunities.”
The Republican Club payment was a Solar sponsorship for an awards dinner, he contended. He also argued that the club members include “decision-makers in connection with waste-hauling contracts.”
One of the expenses, though, he promised to pay back.
The lawsuits pointed out that Solar had paid DiCeglie’s rent for a home in Tallahassee during the legislative sessions. DiCeglie agreed with that one.
“Any payments made by Solar for the property are in fact Mr. DiCeglie’s personal expense,” the legal memorandum stated. “Mr. DiCeglie has indicated that to the extent that Solar was charged for such expense and has not yet been reimbursed, Mr. DiCeglie will reimburse Solar for that expense.”
Family garbage connection
When he first ran for a seat in the Florida House in 2018, DiCeglie played up his family’s connection with garbage.
He told the Tampa Bay Times that he “grew up on Long Island and moved to Florida in 1996 to help his parents run their family sanitation business.”
House and Senate bios in the Florida Legislature describe DiCeglie as a “small business owner.”
And when he ran for a Senate seat last year, DiCeglie touted his experience driving a garbage truck for the company. He won and became chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. FloridaPolitics.com recently named him the 12th most powerful politician in the Tampa Bay region.
What DiCeglie didn’t mention when he talked about Solar was his partnership with the DiNardi brothers, his cousins. One now lives in Port St. Lucie, the other in Seminole, according to the senator’s court filings.
Solar was originally founded 43 years ago by their two fathers and a third relative, all of whom are now dead. Despite the name, the company has nothing to do with solar power.
A 2012 partnership agreement established that each of the three men owns 100 shares of the company. For six years, everything seemed fine.
“In 2018 is when they first became suspicious,” attorney Matheney said.
The brothers’ initial lawsuit said that they discovered that the senator “had opened bank accounts for Solar without their knowledge or consent and had apparently misled them about the reasons behind his decision to change Solar’s long-standing banking relationship.”
At first, Matheney said, “they were trying to be cautious, so they engaged a forensic accountant to do an investigation. That took some time.”
Overall, “this investigation nevertheless revealed substantial evidence of misconduct by DiCeglie, including an extensive pattern of misappropriation and misuse of Solar property over a period of several years,” the brothers said in their November lawsuit.
Then came a showdown at a board meeting earlier this year.
“Effective Feb. 13, 2023, the board of Solar Sanitation removed DiCeglie as an officer and barred him from Solar’s offices pending an investigation,” Anthony DiNardi, Jr. wrote in an email to the Phoenix. “As there is currently litigation pending in Pinellas County regarding DiCeglie’s conduct at Solar Sanitation, we are not at liberty to provide further details.”
According to heavily redacted corporate board minutes supplied by DiNardi, the February meeting resulted in a 2-1 vote to oust the senator and ended after just 20 minutes.
So far neither of the lawsuits have been resolved.
Meanwhile, the dispute has apparently not hurt the company’s profits. According to DiCeglie’s memo to the court, “Solar had a record annual revenue in 2022 of $4.7 million, and 2023 is projected to have $5.3 million in revenue, which is yet another milestone.”
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