WTSP by Noah Pransky
November 15, 2017
The county commission will vote Wednesday on a request from Commissioner Ken Hagan to seek financial retribution from citizen watchdogs who filed ethics complaints against him following a 2015 series by 10Investigates regarding Hagan’s behind-the-scenes dealings.
Hagan is asking his fellow commissioners for more money to pay outside counsel to seek upwards of $8,000 from four citizens for county legal bills spent defending Hagan. The complaints were filed after 10Investigates revealed his close relationship with political consultant and lobbyist Beth Leytham in 2015.
The Florida Commission on Ethics found reason to open an investigation after the citizens submitted the complaints against Hagan, Commissioner Sandy Murman, and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. But after a two-year investigation, the commission recently ruled there was no probable cause to find any of the three guilty of violations.
Several citizens, including some of the complaint filers, urged the county commission Wednesday morning to reject Hagan’s request. They echoed what the Florida First Amendment Foundation said Tuesday, calling the request “deeply troubling” for the “chilling” effect it could have on more citizen watchdogs coming forward with concerns about government officials breaking the law.
“We were concerned Sunshine Laws were violated,” one of the citizen filers, George Niemann explained Wednesday. Niemann also filed a 2014 ethics complaint regarding Hagan’s financial disclosures that led to a guilty plea from the commissioner and an ethics commission fine.
“Some of you were communicating secretly with a government lobbyist,” Niemann continued Wednesday. “All we did was ask the ethics commission to look into the matter.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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 Wednesday, referencing lobbying and public records reforms passed after 10Investigates broke the story in 2015.
Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said Tuesday the lack of enforcement for public records violations limits the risk public officials assume 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. [READ MORE]