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Hillsborough seeks payback for ethics complaint but history shows that could be pricey

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners recently decided to go after the pocketbooks of several residents who filed unsuccessful ethics complaints against one of their colleagues.

If history is any indicator, the maneuver is more likely to cost taxpayers money.

In a split 4-3 vote Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners agreed to petition the Florida Commission on Ethics for reimbursement of the attorney fees spent defending County Commissioner Ken Hagan from multiple complaints. State investigators determined earlier this fall that there was no probable cause to the accusations.

If successful, the Hillsborough residents who filed the complaints would have to compensate the county what it paid an outside attorney to represent Hagan, which was $7,841.

"The taxpayers should not be responsible and on the hook for bogus, frivolous complaints," Hagan said. He called the complaints "nothing more than a political hit piece at the taxpayers' expense."

One of the complainants, Dover resident George Niemann, said Hagan's request amounted to "retribution that will destroy them financially."

"Please don't let one commissioner carry out his own personal vendettas," Niemann asked the rest of the board.

The allegations stem from news reports in 2015 that raised questions about a $1.3 million county transportation contract awarded to Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Niemann and others asked the ethics commission to determine whether the engineering firm was given the contract in 2014 because it was a client of Beth Leytham, a Tampa public relations consultant and political adviser to Hagan and other local officials. Leytham was paid $187,000 as a subcontractor on the deal.

A months-long investigation conducted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and reviewed by the state attorney's office cleared commissioners, county officials and Leytham of any criminal wrongdoing related to the contract.

The ethics complaints were filed prior to the conclusion of that investigation. In October, nearly two years after the state investigators first took on the case, the commission determined there was no probable cause.

The contract under scrutiny was part of an outreach campaign for Go Hillsborough, a proposal to raise the sales tax to pay for transportation needs across the county. Niemann was a vocal opponent of the effort, which Hagan believes motivated the ethics complaint.

In 2014, Hagan agreed to pay a $2,000 fine resulting from a previous ethics complaint by Niemann.

Getting a complaint thrown out is one thing; getting the ethics board to force the complainant to pony up for legal fees is much more difficult.

It rarely happens.

To win a petition for reimbursement, the county must prove the complainant demonstrated "malicious intent to injure the reputation" of Hagan or had "knowledge that the complaint contains one or more false allegations or with reckless disregard for whether the complaint contains false allegations."

"It's a high bar," said Kerrie Stillman, spokeswoman for the state ethics commission. She said the state law was written that way so as not to "have too much of a chilling effect for people to file a truthful complaint."

Of the 2,189 complaints filed since 2007, less than 2 percent of defendants sought reimbursement for their fees.

Among the 37 cases finalized during that time period, 30 were dismissed. Two were settled and five ended in an awarding of payment.

After an unsuccessful ethics complaint against Commissioner Al Higginbotham in 2015, Hillsborough tried to get the person who made the allegations to pay. The county ultimately dropped the effort, but not before spending $5,535 on Higginbotham's outside counsel.

If Hillsborough fails in this attempt, Hagan's private attorney, Mark Levine, will earn $275 per hour and $100 per hour for travel time up to $10,000.

Niemann and others also sent ethics complaints related to the Parsons Brinkeroff deal against County Commissioner Sandy Murman and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Neither will seek reimbursement.

Hillsborough spent $2,820 defending Murman and the city of Tampa paid $5,000 on Buckhorn's outside counsel.

"That's not the type of tactic I would choose to move in," Murman said. "It's over for me."

But Murman joined Commissioners Higginbotham and Les Miller to support Hagan's petition. Commissioners Pat Kemp, Stacy White and Victor Crist voted against it.

The ethics commission cannot initiate investigations on their own and complaints cannot be submitted anonymously. Residents who submit complaints are sticking their neck out and going after them would discourage people from standing up for good government, Kemp said.

White agreed.

"We all know the fish bowl we climb into before we get in this business," White said. "I applaud these watchdogs for holding all of us accountable."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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