Hillsborough likely to lose controversial fight against citizen watchdog

The Florida Commission on Ethics is expected to deny Hillsborough County's controversial petition to claim legal fees from a citizen watchdog who filed an unsuccessful ethics complaint against Commissioner Ken Hagan.

TAMPA, Fla. – The Florida Commission on Ethics is expected to deny Hillsborough County’s controversial petition to claim legal fees from a citizen watchdog who filed an unsuccessful ethics complaint against Commissioner Ken Hagan.

According to 10News’ partners at the Tampa Bay Times, an ethics commission attorney recommended denying the order, which will come before the commission this Friday, Jan. 19.

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By a 4-3 vote, the county commission approved spending up to $10,000 on outside counsel to recover upwards of $8,000 spent on legal fees defending Hagan against ethics complaints filed by four citizens following 10Investigates’ 2015 series into his behind-the-scenes dealings with well-connected friend, political consultant, and lobbyist Beth Leytham.

But the commission found no probable cause that state ethics laws were violated, and the case was closed in 2017.

“If the ethics commission decides that its over….it needs to stop,” said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who supported Hagan’s motion to try and recover fees, but did not attempt to recover legal fees for her defense of an identical complaint.

Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Les Miller joined Murman and Hagan in supporting the petition for fees; Higginbotham was unavailable for comment Wednesday, and Miller said he had “no comment” on his vote.

Commissioners Stacy White, Pat Kemp, and Victor Crist opposed the motion to spend additional money seeking retribution from the complainants, citing the “chilling effect” the effort would have on future watchdogs who may come forward and the uphill nature of the request, since the ethics commission has rejected nearly every similar request its received in recent years.

Several commissioners also told 10Investigates they felt deceived by Hagan, who told commissioners he wanted to go after all four complainants when his outside counsel had already submitted a motion seeking legal fees from only one complainant: George Neimann. Neimann had previously filed a successful ethics complaint against Hagan in 2014, for which the commissioner pleaded guilty and was fined.

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"Our attorney feels we are on very strong legal grounds," Hagan told the board in November, in convincing the majority to agree to his request to authorize more funds for outside counsel. "The taxpayers should not be responsible and on the hook for bogus and frivolous...political hit pieces."

According to the Times, Hagan’s attorney, Mark Levine, will appeal to the board Friday that it should either accept his petition for fees or give him time to amend it.

Levine has racked up $1,100 in additional bills related to the petition for fees, with more expected to come.

To recoup legal fees via the ethics commission, Levine needs to prove Neimann 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."

But the Florida Commission on Ethics found enough evidence in the 10Investigates reports and ensuing complaints from citizens to open an investigation into Hagan, Commissioner Murman, and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. A Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office investigation concluded in 2016 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. However, the ethics commission found the problems did not meet the threshold for violations of ethics laws.

“Some of you were communicating secretly with a government lobbyist…all we did was ask the ethics commission to look into the matter,” Neimann told the commission in November. "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."

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Several citizens joined Neimann in asking the county commission to reject Hagan's request, echoing what the Florida First Amendment Foundation called a "deeply troubling” effort that would have a “chilling” effect on holding public officials accountable for following the law.

"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, referencing lobbying and public records reforms passed after 10Investigates broke the story in 2015.

Three commissioners agreed with the citizens, but the majority voted to authorize Levine to spend up to $10,000 more to petition the Commission on Ethics for legal fees.

Commissioner Kemp, a Democrat ho voted against Hagan's petition, called the effort to recoup legal fees from the conservative Neimann "shameful" on Wednesday.

"Using taxpayer dollars that George (Neimann) put into the system, to go after him for malicious intent, is extremely disturbing," Kemp said, heralding his previous watchdog complaints that targeted disgraced former commissioners Kevin White, Jim Norman, as well as former county administrators who gave themselves pay raises.

Hagan has not responded to 10News' requests for interviews in months; he told 10Investigates in October he would not respond to questions “due to your irresponsible and misleading reporting.”

He repeated a variation of the comment 16 times.

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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