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Kevin Beckner hits back in libel suit by Brian Blair over campaign tactics in Hillsborough Commission race

TAMPA — Sued for libel by his former political opponent, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner fired back Friday with a scornful legal filing that seeks to get the case tossed out of court.

The gist: Beckner's campaign statements didn't defame defeated Commissioner Brian Blair because they were rooted in truth and made without malice.

Last month, Blair said he filed the lawsuit to restore his reputation.

Beckner's response?

"This motion is intended to join in that endeavor and to clarify that Blair's reputation is, in actuality, one that is a discredit to him personally and to the Tampa Bay community," Barry Cohen and Gregg Thomas, Beckner's attorneys, wrote in their motion to dismiss.

Blair, a former pro wrestler, served one term on the commission before losing his seat to Beckner in November. He claims Beckner made false allegations about his record in campaign mailers and ads, which exposed the incumbent to "hatred, contempt" and "ridicule."

"I think he has a pretty good reputation with a lot of people," said Blair's attorney, Chris Rodems. "I think it's clear that making false statements about him in the campaign obviously affected the outcome."

In an interview Friday, Cohen called the lawsuit foolish, saying candidates must be able to tell voters relevant information about elected officials without fear of being sued.

"This is not just about a wrestler who needs to get his tricycle and go to his room because he's pouting about his loss to Kevin Beckner," Cohen said. "It's about a most serious, basic, fundamental principle of our American system that needs to be preserved."

Beckner's legal response, a 38-page motion with 24 exhibits, begins with detailed explanations for each of the statements Blair has quibbled with. Among the alleged false statements is that he voted to give himself a pay raise and to spend $1 million in tax money to clean up his personal lake.

Beckner's attorneys argue that his tactics were nothing more than typical campaigning. He merely reprinted or summarized statements that had already been made by or about Blair during the political contest, they said.

They say the First Amendment protects such political speech.

Then things get more personal.

Attempting to discount Blair's claim that damage was done to "his good name and reputation," Beckner's attorneys make a litany of references to negative incidents in Blair's past and critical press coverage during his time in office.

The digs date back as far as 1984, when Blair was accused by a girlfriend of punching her and pulling out her hair but was not arrested. More recently, they point out, the Florida Elections Commission found probable cause that Blair violated campaign finance law last fall.

Rodems said that much of the information included in the motion is improper at this point in the court proceedings and will not be considered by a judge.

He found Beckner's choice of high-powered attorneys telling.

It shows "that he is very concerned about the mistakes that he's made in the campaign," Rodems said, "and I understand his concern."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Kevin Beckner hits back in libel suit by Brian Blair over campaign tactics in Hillsborough Commission race 04/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2009 12:10am]

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