Hillsborough likely to lose controversial fight against citizen watchdog again

Gray Schafer, staff attorney for the Commission on Ethics, recommended denying the order for the second time in two months.

TAMPA -- The Florida Commission on Ethics has once again been advised to deny Hillsborough County’s controversial petition seeking legal fees from a citizen watchdog who filed an unsuccessful ethics complaint against Commissioner Ken Hagan.

Gray Schafer, staff attorney for the Commission on Ethics, recommended denying the order for the second time in two months; a January hearing on the item was continued to the March 9 meeting after Hagan’s outside counsel requested time to amend his complaint before the commission cast its final vote.

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The recommendation will be considered March 9 by the full Commission on Ethics board, which will have the ultimate say on whether Hagan and Hillsborough County have proven complainant George Niemann acted with "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.”

Schafer wrote that Hagan’s amended complaint again failed to show sufficient grounds for recouping fees from citizen watchdog Niemann.

The petition also discredited Niemann’s complaint because the information came from a news report. But Schafer advised the Commission on Ethics board that is no basis for a petition for fees.

Hagan’s petition comes following a controversial 4-3 vote by Hillsborough County Commissioners in November, where the board chose to spend more money on outside attorney Mark Levine in an effort to recoup $8,052 in legal bills related to ethics complaints filed by four citizens against Hagan following 10Investigates’ 2015 series into Hagan’s behind-the-scenes dealings with well-connected friend, political consultant, and lobbyist Beth Leytham. The commission found “no probable cause” that state ethics laws were violated after a two-year investigation.

While trying to recoup the initial fees, Levine has racked up an additional $3,163 in legal bills that county taxpayers will likely have to pay. Additional bills are likely with Levine expected to appear before the Commission on Ethics next month. It is historically rare for the subject of unsuccessful ethics complaints to win legal fees from watchdogs who file complaints.

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"Our attorney feels we are on very strong legal grounds," Hagan told the board back in November, in convincing three other members 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."

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.

Click here to view the memorandum and draft final order dismissing the petition for attorney's fees and costs.

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