HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. -- A state watchdog says it is "deeply troubling" that Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan is seeking reimbursement from four citizens for legal bills that stemmed from ethics complaints against him.
The state recently ruled there was no probable cause of the alleged 2015 ethics violations, related to a 10Investigates series detailing Hagan's close relationship with political consultant and lobbyist Beth Leytham. And this week, Hagan will request his fellow commissioners spend thousands more to recoup the $7,841 the county spent on outside counsel defending him.
But Barbara Petersen, President of the First Amendment Foundation, said the action could have a "chilling effect...on citizens who feel their elected officials have violated the law."
"According to the published report (on WTSP.com), law enforcement found that 'key public records may have been deleted,' but there wasn’t probable cause to pursue charges," Petersen said in an email. "There are two types of offenses under chapter 119, intentional (criminal) violations and unintentional (noncriminal) charges. So to say there was no probable cause to pursue criminal charges does not mean there wasn’t an unintentional violation of law."
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.
Petersen added that the lack of enforcement for public records violations limits the risk public officials take on 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.
County Commission Chairman Stacy White told 10Investigates he is also concerned about setting a “bad precedent” of squashing citizens who try to blow the whistle on elected officials, and plans to oppose the motion.
To recoup legal fees, Hagan's outside counsel would need to prove the four citizens who filed complaints 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."
If a majority of Hillsborough's seven commissioners approve spending more on Hagan’s ethics case, attorney Mark Levine will submit a petition for fees & costs to the commission, who will have to determine if complainants George Niemann, Charlotte Greenbarg, Shirley Wood, and Lela Lillyquist knowingly filed false complaints and if the county can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they made the complaints with a “reckless disregard for the truth.”
Many of the claims in the complaint came from 10Investigates’ findings but did not meet the commission’s threshold for violations of state laws.
Hagan did not respond to a Monday morning email; 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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