Port Richey council member wants the city to pay his $36,319 legal bill

PORT RICHEY — His campaign platform was to keep taxes low. So when a proposal emerged to charge a passenger boarding fee for casino and sightseeing boats, City Council member Phil Abts cast the deciding vote to kill the measure.

That's where the trouble began.

A fellow council member filed an ethics complaint alleging Abts should have recused himself. Abts sells health insurance to SunCruz casino boat employees.

The Florida Commission on Ethics exonerated Abts this summer. Then his attorney's bill came due: $36,319 for 112 hours of work.

Abts thinks Port Richey should pick up the tab, since the bill was incurred while defending his actions as an elected official. He will ask his fellow council members Nov. 24 to use city funds to reimburse him.

Should taxpayers pony up that much?

"If it were you," Abts told the Times, "would you hire an effective legal counsel, or choose a low-dollar attorney to represent yourself against unfounded accusations? I'm not going to go cheap on an attorney."

Abts points to the city resolution that requires reimbursement of attorney's fees arising out of "unsubstantiated charges or proceedings pertaining to violation of state law."

City Attorney Michael Brannigan said that language refers to criminal cases. For example, Brannigan said, if a council member is acquitted of bribery or perjury allegations relating to his governmental post, the attorney's fees will be reimbursed.

But for a civil case, like Abts' ethics complaint, reimbursing the legal costs is up to the council's discretion.

Six years ago, the council reimbursed former council member Joe Menicola $5,458 in attorney fees and expenses for defending himself against an ethics complaint.

Menicola had earlier "declared war" on the Police Department after his son was ticketed for speeding, and the officer "didn't even extend a courtesy when he saw the last name." The ethics commission rejected the complaint that grew out of that controversy.

The council will consider the circumstances of Abts' case in deciding whether to reimburse his fees, Brannigan said.

"In this case, even if you were to take the premise that we intended to pay or reimburse him, you have to have a separate issue to the reasonableness of the fees requested," Brannigan said. "It's more of an issue of ethics, and that's part of the problem. This is more of a gray area."

• • •

Abts' legal saga began last November, when then-council member Mark Hashim floated the idea of a boat passenger fee of $7.50 per person.

The tax would be levied on vessels with no land-bound destination, such as casino boats and sightseeing tours. The proceeds would pay for fixing up roads and streetlights near waterways, among other things.

Hashim asked Abts to recuse himself because he sold insurance to SunCruz employees and therefore had a financial interest in their business. Abts refused.

A month later, Hashim filed a complaint with the state Commission on Ethics.

In January, Abts voted with Mayor Richard Rober and council member Steven O'Neill to kill the proposed fee. Later that month, Abts hired attorney Ann. M. Allison of Temple Terrace to defend him on the ethics complaint.

She represented him from Jan. 26 until Oct. 23, for $325 an hour.

According to an invoice detailing her services, Allison's 112 hours of work on the case included one trip to Tallahassee and the following: reviews of investigators' questions, complaint response strategy, a phone conversation with Abts on "various matters" that included the fees, and Allison's writing of an affidavit of her own attorney fees.

Allison didn't return a call Friday for comment.

July 29, the ethics commission ruled there was no probable cause to believe Abts violated state law by "voting on matters affecting a client of his insurance business."

The complaint was dismissed.

In October, Abts returned to Tallahassee and asked the ethics commission to order Hashim — who lost his reelection bid in April — to pay for his legal bill. But the commission said no.

So Abts turned to the city.

• • •

Council members will weigh Abts' request against the backdrop of the city's budget crunch — and questions over the size of the bill.

"The allegations in this were pretty straight forward," said Brannigan, the city attorney. "There weren't lots of travel expenses or witnesses to fly up there (to Tallahassee). It just seems quite high. Someone locally in Tallahassee would do it cheaper. About $2,000 to 5,000 would be normal."

Even so, Abts plans to pursue his plans for reimbursement, and hopes the city could use liability funds to avoid charging taxpayers.

But not before he talks to his attorney one more time.

"I would sincerely hope that fellow council members would understand that councilman Abts was acting on behalf of the city," Abts said. "By voting 'no' on this measure, I voted in my full capacity as a councilman."

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at cspencer@sptimes.com or (727)869-6236.

Port Richey council member wants the city to pay his $36,319 legal bill 11/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 14, 2009 2:16pm]

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