ST. PETE BEACH — City Commissioner Bev Garnett was cleared July 29 of any wrongdoing by the Florida Commission on Ethics, which looked into a complaint filed by a political rival who claimed that legal representation she received was an illegal gift.
Former city Commissioner Harry Metz filed the complaint. The two are opponents in the city's ongoing development wars.
Metz alleged Garnett violated state laws when she was defended in a lawsuit stemming from her volunteer service with Save Our Little Village, a political action committee. The suit against SOLV named Garnett and other members and was filed by a resident previously associated with Citizens for Responsible Growth. Metz was a founder of CRG.
Metz claimed that Garnett, who subsequently was elected to the commission, received an illegal gift by being defended by the SOLV attorney.
The Commission on Ethics disagreed.
"The legal services did not have a value attributable to (Garnett)," commission investigator Melody Hadley wrote in her report for the commission.
"I was vindicated. It only took a matter of minutes to dismiss the case," Garnett said Monday. She called Metz's complaint part of a pattern of harassment that has gone on for three years.
Metz insists he does not have a vendetta against Garnett.
"She has no idea what harassment is," Metz said when told of Garnett's comments. "I am just pointing out the laws."
Metz, who himself has been the target of multiple ethics and elections complaints, was fined $500 by the Commission on Ethics for failing to fully report business and rental income on a 2007 financial statement.
The complaint leading to that fine was filed against Metz by a SOLV supporter.
Metz was elected to the City Commission in 2007 but decided not to run for re-election.
After Garnett ran unopposed for his seat in 2009, Metz filed 13 complaints against Garnett with the Florida Elections Commission.
Only one of those complaints was actually considered by the commission, which in 2010 overrode its investigators and dismissed the case, according to Garnett.
"They thought it was ridiculous," she said.
The case involved a $76 cash campaign contribution, which was over the $50 legal limit. Earlier that year the limit was $100.
In December 2009, the City Commission voted to reimburse Garnett for more than $4,200 she spent in legal fees defending herself in a development-related lawsuit filed 20 days after she qualified as a candidate for the commission in 2008. The lawsuit is the same one cited in Garnett's ethics case.
The next day, Metz filed a lawsuit against her and the city challenging that payment. He later voluntarily dismissed the suit.
On Sept. 21, 2010, the commission again reimbursed Garnett, this time for more than $21,000 in legal fees related to Metz's election complaint and lawsuit.
Seven days later, Metz filed his complaint with the Commission on Ethics.
To date, the city has reimbursed Garnett for more than $25,000 in legal costs connected to Metz's legal actions.
"I had to front the costs. Luckily my husband and I are able to do that," Garnett said.
She did not hire an attorney in the ethics case. She said she has not decided whether to seek any reimbursement for travel costs.
As for Metz, he says he is ready to file additional complaints against Garnett if and when the situation warrants.