TAMPA, Fla. - The Florida Commission on Ethics rejected Hillsborough County’s controversial petition seeking legal fees from a citizen watchdog who filed an unsuccessful ethics complaint against Commissioner Ken Hagan on Friday.
By a 6-1 vote, the commission appears to have put an end to a three-year saga involving behind-the-scenes talks, missing public records and allegations of insider dealings at the county center. The ethics complaint against Hagan stemmed from a 10Investigates story.
The board expressed concern that other citizen watchdogs, like Hillsborough County's George Niemann, could be stymied in future attempts to hold officials accountable if they required Niemann to pay the county back more than $10,000 in legal fees related to his complaint.
Ethics commissioners also seemed to agree Hagan's defense failed to prove Niemann acted with "a malicious intent to injure the reputation" of Hagan and the complaint was filed with "knowledge that the complaint contains one or more false allegations or with reckless disregard.”
The county's outside counsel lobbied the ethics commission to keep the case alive so he could continue to investigate the motives for the complaint against Hagan, suggesting a 10News reporter who lacked credibility was to blame.
Through the end of February, outside attorney Mark Levine billed Hillsborough County $5,063 in his effort to recoup fees from Niemann, but that number is likely to climb significantly. The figure is in addition to the $8,051 in legal bills related to his initial defense of the four complaints filed by citizens against Hagan.
Only four of seven county commissioners supported the motion to go after Niemann, budgeting up to $10,000 for Levine's time, even though the petition appeared unlikely to prevail. The state found “no probable cause” in the complaints against Hagan, but the bar to make the complainants pay is intentionally set high.
"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.
"It is sad that a county commissioner tries to punish citizens for seeking transparency and honesty in their elected officials," Neimann said Friday. "I am thankful that the Ethics Commission realized that this official’s intent was really to seek retribution and dismissed the petition without a second thought."