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Port Richey council won't pay legal bill from ethics complaint

PORT RICHEY — City Council member Phil Abts is stuck with a $36,319 legal bill.

Abts asked his fellow council members on Tuesday night to pick up the tab, arguing he spent the money defending himself on an ethics complaint that grew out of his duties as a city official.

But the council remained unconvinced.

After an hourlong presentation and discussion, council member Bill Colombo made a motion to find that Abts was "acting in his official duties and serving a public purpose," a necessary step toward reimbursing Abts for the fees.

Mayor Richard Rober asked if anyone wanted to second the motion.

No one said a word, and the motion failed.

"At this point," Rober said, "Mr. Abts' request isn't going anywhere as we sit here this evening."

Abts ran up the legal bill by fighting an ethics complaint filed by former council member Mark Hashim. Abts cast the deciding vote in January killing a proposed passenger boarding fee on sightseeing and casino boats. Hashim alleged Abts should have recused himself, since Abts sells health insurance to employees of SunCruz casino boats.

Abts hired Temple Terrace attorney Ann M. Allison, who billed him for nearly 112 hours of legal representation at $325 per hour.

The Florida Commission on Ethics cleared Abts this summer. But his bill for Allison's services — which included items such as writing an affidavit for her own attorney's fees — was due.

Abts asked the ethics commission to order Hashim to pay the legal bill, but that request was denied. So on Tuesday night, wearing a black suit and pacing the floor during his presentation, Abts turned to the council.

At the start of the council meeting, City Attorney Michael Brannigan explained to Abts that the city has no resolution or ordinance that deals with the reimbursement of attorney's fees during civil cases such as his.

That meant it would be up to the council to determine whether Abts satisfied the two points, Brannigan said, which are based on a 1991 opinion from the Attorney General.

The first: that his vote to ax the passenger boarding fee was conducted while he was serving his duties as a council member.

The second: that he was acting in the public's interest at the time he voted on the fee.

The council was skeptical that Abts met the second prong, and they questioned the size of the bill. Brannigan previously told the Times "about $2,000 to $5,000 would be normal" to defend such a complaint.

"I wonder if we are trying to close the barn door after the horse is out," Rober said. "Should we have discussed legal fees before we went into this? I can tell you the dollar amount takes me aback quite a ways."

Rober said the invoice from Abts' attorney was puzzling.

"When I see that you're being billed for the billing itself, I have to scratch my bald head and wonder, why?" Rober said.

Abts, playing audio from a meeting where the passenger fee was discussed, paused to reply.

"This was my responsibility on council to make sure the taxpayers didn't end up with this kind of fee," he said.

Colombo questioned the direction of Abts' presentation, which included files from the ethics commission and a timeline about his ethics case.

"It went before the ethics commission and they didn't find probable cause," he said. "So, we are re-trying what the commission found?"

Council member Perry Bean said he found aspects of Abts' request to be "distasteful."

"If the ethics commission doesn't feel the fees are recoverable, I'm not sure what we're here talking about," Bean said. "I don't think the second point has been met."

Even so, Abts continued his presentation, stopping again to plead to the council.

"This has cost me hundreds of hours. I've lost sleep, and my business is going down," he said. "A lot is happening to me as far as chest pains and all that."

Abts ended by saying that he incurred the fees for the public's interest, and that both of the Attorney General's points that Brannigan spoke of had been met.

"If you don't decide this," Abts said to the council, "a judge will."

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

Port Richey council won't pay legal bill from ethics complaint 11/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 8:01pm]
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