PORT RICHEY — Former City Council member Phil Abts has won his lawsuit against the city seeking reimbursement of legal bills he accrued fighting an ethics complaint.
All that's left to determine is the dollar amount.
Abts was ultimately cleared of any ethics violation, which was leveled by another former council member in 2009 regarding a proposed passenger boarding fee on sightseeing and casino boats.
Abts cast the deciding vote killing the fees. Former council member Mark Hashim said Abts should have recused himself because Abts sells health insurance to employees of SunCruz casino boats.
Abts hired Temple Terrace attorney Ann M. Allison, who billed him for more than $36,000.
When Abts asked council members to pay the bill — arguing the matter arose from his duties as a city official — they balked at the amount. Allison's bill included time spent on travel and writing an affidavit for her own attorney's fees.
Circuit Judge Lowell Bray, who ruled in favor of Abts, left the dollar amount open, saying only that it be "reasonable and necessary."
And Abts has accrued more legal bills since. To pursue the lawsuit, he hired attorney Luke Lirot, whose bill totals more than $12,000, Abts said.
"The city could have gotten out of this for pennies on the dollar. Now the taxpayers are going to bear the burden," Abts said.
Lirot said he plans to hold an evidentiary hearing before the judge to determine the fees.
City attorney Michael Brannigan said he thought the ruling was unclear about how the amount will be determined.
Brannigan says $2,000 to $5,000 is a more reasonable fee for such a case. He said his next step is for the council to meet in an executive session to discuss the fee.
"Thirty-something thousand dollars is extremely excessive," said Brannigan, who added that he disagrees with the ruling.
But Lirot said he thinks the judge got it right.
"I hate to call it a no-brainer, but I think the issues were a lot less complicated than the city tried to make them," Lirot said. "The bottom line is there should have been no ethics complaint. He had to defend himself against a bogus ethics complaint" and should be reimbursed.
Abts, too, was pleased.
"I'm very happy to see that justice was provided. Our judicial system is working as it should in this particular case," he said. "The city needs to pay the bill."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.