HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. -- The county commission voted Wednesday, 4-3, to approve a request from Commissioner Ken Hagan to seek financial retribution from citizen watchdogs who filed ethics complaints against him following a 2015 series by 10Investigates regarding Hagan's behind-the-scenes dealings.
Hagan asked his fellow commissioners for more money to pay outside counsel to seek upwards of $8,000 from four citizens for county legal bills spent defending Hagan. The complaints were filed after 10Investigates revealed his close relationship with political consultant and lobbyist Beth Leytham in 2015. Hagan Wednesday called those reports "fake news."
"Most ethics complaints are political in nature," Hagan said. "The taxpayers should not be responsible and on the hook for bougus and frivolous...political hit pieces."
The Florida Commission on Ethics found reason to open an investigation after the citizens submitted the 2015 complaints against Hagan, Commissioner Sandy Murman, and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. But after a two-year investigation, the commission recently ruled there was no probable cause to find any of the three guilty of violations.
Commissioners Hagan, Murman, Al Higginbotham, and Les Miller supported the motion Wednesday; Pat Kemp, Victor Crist, and Stacy White opposed it.
Several citizens, including some of the complaint filers, urged the county commission to reject Hagan's request. They echoed what the Florida First Amendment Foundation said Tuesday, calling the request "deeply troubling" for the "chilling" effect it could have on more citizen watchdogs coming forward with concerns about government officials breaking the law.
"We were concerned Sunshine Laws were violated," one of the citizen filers, George Niemann explained Wednesday. Niemann also filed a 2014 ethics complaint regarding Hagan's financial disclosures that led to a guilty plea from the commissioner and an ethics commission fine.
"Some of you were communicating secretly with a government lobbyist," Niemann continued Wednesday. "All we did was ask the ethics commission to look into the matter.
"Did we have a basis for filing the violation? We sure did. County Administrator Mike Merrill already asked the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to check into possible wrongdoing...please don’t let one commissioner carry out his personal vendettas; it will cost the county much more…because we will go to court and fight it."
In 2016, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office concluded some public records related to Leytham's relationship with Hagan and Commissioner Sandy Murman were likely deleted. 10Investigates had already proved commissioners - on numerous occasions - failed to turn over requested records in accordance with state law. But the violations did not meet the threshold for violations of ethics laws.
"The county was forced to change its policy, so obviously something was wrong," former commission candidate and East Hillsborough resident Sharon Calvert told the board Wednesday, referencing lobbying and public records reforms passed after 10Investigates broke the story in 2015.
To recoup legal fees, Hagan's outside counsel will need to prove the citizen filers, George Niemann, Charlotte Greenbarg, Shirley Wood, and Lela Lillyquist, had "a malicious intent to injure the reputation" of the commissioner and the complaint was filed with "knowledge that the complaint contains one or more false allegations or with reckless disregard for whether the complaint contains false allegations of fact material to a violation of this part."
"Our attorney feels we are on very strong legal grounds," Hagan said Wednesday of attorney Mark Levine.
The board authorized Levine to spend up to $10,000 more to petition the Commission on Ethics for legal fees. Hagan cited the board's 2015 approval to spend money seeking fees from the filer of an unsuccessful ethics complaint against Commissioner Higginbotham, but the county later dropped the request after spending thousands more on outside counsel.
Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said Tuesday the lack of enforcement for public records violations limits the risk public officials assume if they ignore the law.
"That means that its incumbent on the public to pursue possible violations of the law. To require a citizen to pay the legal costs of a commissioner who is not charged criminally is horribly chilling and could certainly create insurmountable barriers to those seeking access to public records," Petersen said.
Hagan has not responded to 10Investigates' Monday request for comment; he told a 10Investigates reporter in October he would not respond to questions “due to your irresponsible and misleading reporting.”
He repeated a variation of the comment 16 times.
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