BROOKSVILLE — Concerned that Aviation Authority chairman Gary Schraut might have gone too far in his strident criticism of an airport tenant, a divided Hernando County Commission on Tuesday voted not to pay for his legal defense in a defamation lawsuit.
The 3-2 vote came even as County Attorney Garth Coller explained that letting Schraut retain his own lawyer, at what likely will be a much higher fee than the county had negotiated with its counsel, could cost the county more in the end.
Case law, the legal staff said, shows the county is responsible for defending those doing the county's work.
In August, Worldwide Aircraft Services and company principal Michael Honeycutt sued Schraut, seeking monetary damages and an injunction to stop him from continuing to make derogatory comments.
Honeycutt operates the air ambulance company known as Jet ICU. He contends in his suit that Schraut told a Tampa Bay Times columnist that Honeycutt and his company were "troublemakers, were liars, were bomb throwers and were like terrorists.''
Honeycutt alleges that Schraut, without naming him specifically, referred to him as part of the "fab five," or the fabricating five. According to the suit, Honeycutt determined that he was one of the group Schraut was referring to, based on people he deals with and "recent events at the airport.''
Honeycutt contends that Schraut made the statements to interfere with his business, drive him out of business and take back Jet ICU's leased space at the airport.
Those kinds of statements put the county in a bad light, said County Commissioner Wayne Dukes.
Dukes said there is no problem with a county employee or a volunteer on a county board talking to the newspaper but, as a county representative, one must "choose their words wisely.''
"If you choose words that are inflammatory or aggressive or leave yourself open to libel, it's a mistake,'' and the county taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for a defense, he said.
Commission Chairman Dave Russell said that the county has an obligation to pay for Schraut's legal defense because he was acting in his role as Aviation Authority chairman when the newspaper columnist called him.
He said it hasn't even been established that the report in the paper was accurate. "That,'' he said, "will be established in court.''
Commissioner Diane Rowden, who has called Schraut out on several occasions lately, said she agreed with Dukes.
"This person was contacted in their position but spoke outside the job and made personal attacks,'' Rowden said.
Commissioner Jim Adkins voiced concern that not paying to represent volunteer board members could have a chilling effect on filling those positions.
Even several audience members urged commissioners not to pay for Schraut's lawyer. Timber Pines resident Arlene Glantz asked whether the authority needed Schraut or if the commission needed the authority.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson joined Dukes and Rowden in voting against paying for Schraut's fees.
After the vote, Schraut had little to say.
"It's a lawsuit, so I really shouldn't say much about it, but I don't agree with it," he said. "I think it's purely political, and it could be extremely costly.
"I think Diane had a great victory today, but at the expense of the taxpayers. It could be in the six figures.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.