Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: Ken Hagan should drop effort to recover attorney’s fees in ethics complaint

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan says he’s standing on principle in his effort to collect $7,800 spent defending him against ethics charges that eventually were dismissed. If so, it’s the wrong principle. But Hagan’s strident position rings less of altruism than it does of bald-faced revenge.

And in the end, as Steve Contorno of the Tampa Bay Times has reported, Hagan and the slim commission majority supporting his clawback attempt are rolling the dice against long odds that they won’t end up costing taxpayers even more money.

The complaints stem from a contract awarded Parsons Brinckerhoff to conduct public outreach for Go Hillsborough, the county’s failed 2016 effort to bring voters a plan for improving the woeful state of transportation affairs in Hillsborough County.

Critics said the company was chosen because it was a client of well-connected Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham, who has provided advice to Hagan through the years — as well as to his commission colleague Sandy Murman and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office investigated. State Attorney Mark Ober determined Leytham did not violate the county’s lobbying ordinance and found no evidence she was paid by Parsons Brinckerhoff to intervene with the county on her behalf.

Meantime, the critics — including George Niemann of Dover — had lodged complaints with the Florida Commission on Ethics that took two years to finally resolve. The Ethics Commission determined in October that it had no probable cause to proceed.

That should have been the end of it. It was for Murman and Buckhorn. Hillsborough spent $2,820 defending Murman and the city of Tampa paid $5,000 on Buckhorn’s outside counsel.

But Hagan felt compelled to climb a high horse.

He called the complaints "nothing more than a political hit piece at the taxpayers’ expense."

He may be right. But in this case, going after the complainants to collect attorney fees causes more harm than good to the cause of integrity in government. Hagan should recognize the chilling effect his actions will have on private citizens who wish to avail themselves of one of the few opportunities afforded them to challenge powerful government interests.

And so should his colleagues. Among the four votes to go after the complainant, one, inexplicably, was Murman’s — even as she said, "That’s not the type of tactic I would choose to move in. It’s over for me."

The other two commissioners, besides Hagan, were Al Higginbotham and Les Miller.

Perhaps Hagan is emboldened by recent decisions that support collecting attorneys fees from individuals who complain to the Ethics Commission.

In September, an administrative law judge recommended the Ethics Commission make individuals repay Flagler County $311,666 for five complaints that the judge determined were filed with "reckless disregard" for facts and as part of an organized effort to influence a county election.

The Hillsborough case doesn’t approach the severity of this pattern. It’s true that Niemann has filed 10 complaints with the Ethics Commission — but across a decade, and over a variety of concerns.

If Hagan really is concerned about a waste of taxpayers’ money, perhaps he could choose to commit his own funds to his effort. The commission vote last week was to pay an outside attorney up to $10,000 in public funds — to collect the $7,400 paid to that same attorney defending Hagan earlier.

But if this really is the commissioner’s motive, he should heed the findings of Contorno’s most recent story on the issue:

Of the 2,189 complaints filed since 2007 with the Ethics Commission, less than 2 percent of defendants sought reimbursement for their fees. Among the 37 reimbursement cases finalized during that period, 30 were dismissed, two were settled and five ended in an awarding of payment.

With odds like that, Hagan should consider playing with his own money. Or just leave the dice on the table.

Editor’s note: This editorial has been modified to reflect the following correction: George Niemann was not the petitioner of a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics that was the subject of an effort by Hillsborough County to recover $17,000 in attorney fees in the case. An editorial in the Tampa Tribune regional edition of the Tampa Bay Times on Nov. 26 was incorrect on this point.

Comments

Another voice: Privacy in the internet age

How much information about you is on your cellphone? Likely the most intimate details of your life: photographs, internet searches, text and email conversations with friends and colleagues. And though you might not know it, your phone is constantly c...
Published: 12/10/17
Updated: 12/11/17
Editorial: Grand jury could force reforms of juvenile justice system

Editorial: Grand jury could force reforms of juvenile justice system

Confronted with documentation of sanctioned brutality and sexual abuse in Florida’s juvenile detention centers, the reaction from Gov. Rick Scott’s administration was defensive and obtuse. So it’s welcome news that Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine...
Updated: 12 hours ago

Editorial: U.S. House sides with NRA over state’s rights on concealed weapons permits

With the horror of the mass shootings at a Las Vegas country music concert and a small Texas church still fresh, the U.S. House finally has taken action on guns. But the bill it passed last week won’t make Americans safer from gun violence. It is an ...
Published: 12/07/17
Editorial: Hillsborough cannot afford pay raises for teachers

Editorial: Hillsborough cannot afford pay raises for teachers

There is no satisfaction for anyone in the standoff over pay raises between the Hillsborough County School District and its teachers. Most teachers across the nation already are underpaid, but this district simply cannot afford the raises teachers ex...
Published: 12/07/17
Editorial: Impact of Water Street project extends beyond buildings

Editorial: Impact of Water Street project extends beyond buildings

With a buildout of $3 billion encompassing entire city blocks, it’s obvious that Jeff Vinik’s plans will change the look and feel of downtown Tampa. But the Tampa Bay Lightning owner unveiled a broader vision last week that reflects how far the impac...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/08/17
Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

It is dangerous and illegal to text while driving in Florida, and police should be able to pull over and ticket those lawbreakers without witnessing another violation first. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has lent his powerful voice to legislation th...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17

Editorial: Outsourcing common sense on St. Petersburg Pier naming rights

St. Petersburg officials predict that selling the naming rights to parts of the new Pier could generate $100,000 in annual revenue. But first the city wants to pay a consultant to tell it how and to whom to sell the rights. Why do city officials need...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17

Another voice: Trump’s risky move

President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has a certain amount of common sense on its side. As a practical matter, West Jerusalem has been the seat of Israeli government since 1949, and no conceivable formula for Pa...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17
Editorial: Tampa’s MOSI reinvents itself

Editorial: Tampa’s MOSI reinvents itself

A tactical retreat and regrouping seems to be paying off for Hillsborough County’s Museum of Science and Industry. After paring back its operations, the museum posted a small profit over the past year, enabling the attraction to keep its doors open a...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/07/17
Times recommends: McClure for Florida House District 58

Times recommends: McClure for Florida House District 58

Voters in Temple Terrace, Plant City and Thonotosassa have an easy choice in the Dec. 19 special election to replace state Rep. Dan Raulerson, who resigned for health reasons. Republican Lawrence McClure is the only credible candidate.McClure, 30, ow...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/07/17