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Council member Phil Abts sues Port Richey to get legal fees reimbursed

PORT RICHEY — Insisting he should not be left on the hook for a sizable legal bill to clear his name, City Council member Phil Abts is now suing the city he serves.

On Wednesday, Abts filed a lawsuit seeking reimbursement of legal fees he incurred while defending himself against an ethics complaint lodged by a former council member.

Mark Hashim alleged that Abts' vote in January on a proposed boarding fee on sightseeing and casino boats amounted to a conflict of interest. Hashim said Abts should have recused himself on the issue, since Abts sells health insurance to employees of SunCruz casino boats.

Hashim had proposed the boarding fee; Abts' no vote killed it.

Abts pleaded his case to the Florida Commission on Ethics, which cleared him this summer. But he says the effort took 112 hours of legal work at $325 per hour by Temple Terrace attorney Ann M. Allison, who billed him for work including writing an affidavit for her own attorney's fees.

Abts asked the ethics commission to order Hashim to pay the $36,319 legal bill, but that request was denied.

So last month, he asked his fellow council members to pick up the tab. He gave an hourlong presentation, arguing that he was acting in the public's interest when he voted against the fee.

That's key to satisfying his eligibility for recovering the fees.

"This was my responsibility on council to make sure the taxpayers didn't end up with this kind of fee," Abts told the council on Nov. 24.

Council member Bill Colombo made a motion to reimburse Abts, but it died for lack of a second.

The other members were skeptical that Abts had met the "public interest" condition, and they questioned the amount of the legal bill.

City Attorney Michael Brannigan has previously told the Times that "about $2,000 to $5,000 would be normal" to defend such a complaint.

Brannigan could not be reached Wednesday. Mayor Richard Rober did not return a call for comment.

Hashim, elected in 2007, did not seek re-election in April.

Abts said he thinks Hashim's complaint to the ethics body was retaliation for not supporting the boarding fee, which Abts believed was illegal.

At this point, he said he felt a lawsuit was the only avenue left to pursue.

"I have exhausted all other options and efforts in an attempt to clear my name in this unjustified violation," Abts said.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Council member Phil Abts sues Port Richey to get legal fees reimbursed 12/23/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 23, 2009 10:16pm]
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