Tampa Bay-area commissioner Hagan wants watchdogs to pay for his ethics defense

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. -- County Commissioner Ken Hagan is asking his fellow commissioners for permission to spend up to $10,000 more to pay an attorney to seek reimbursement from citizens who filed ethics complaints against him.

Following a 2015 10Investigates story detailing the close relationship political consultant and lobbyist Beth Leytham had with Hagan, Commissioner Sandy Murman, and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a group of concerned citizens filed complaints with the Florida Commission on Ethics.  The commission found “sufficient evidence” to investigate, but after two years, ultimately echoed the separate Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office investigation that concluded key public records may have been deleted, but there was no “probable cause” to pursue charges.

Taxpayers paid to defend the public officials in the ethics investigation, with the county initially approving $20,000 for outside attorneys defending Hagan and Murman.

Hagan’s request was added to the consent agenda for Wednesday’s regular board meeting, but board chair Stacy White says he has already designated the item for a full discussion and plans on opposing it.  White tells 10Investigates he is concerned about setting a “bad precedent” of squashing citizens who try to blow the whistle on elected officials.

“How can you tell if someone is trying to use ethics complaints as a weapon, versus just someone who thinks of themselves as a watchdog?” White asked rhetorically.

If 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.

Commissioner Murman did not yet respond to 10Investigates’ Monday morning request for information, but her defense costs were not referenced in Hagan’s request.

The county reports Murman's ethics defense cost $2,820, while Hagan's cost $7,841.

Although seeking reimbursement for dismissed ethics investigations is rare, it is not without precedent. In 2015, Hillsborough County commissioners, including White, voted 6-1 to seek reimbursement against Joe Keel from Keel & Curley Winery after he unsuccessfully filed an ethics complaint against Commissioner Al Higginbotham.  The reimbursement request, which could have cost Keel nearly $20,000, was eventually dropped by the county. 

"It's sad that Commissioner Hagan is trying to stifle citizens that try to exercise their right to raise a question about whether elected officials are acting in the best interest of their constituents," Niemann, one of the complainants, said Monday.

A spokesperson for Buckhorn said the mayor's office had not considered similar steps.

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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Find 10Investigates' Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips confidentially to npransky@wtsp.com.

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