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Tampa attorney orders debate tape off air

TAMPA — City Attorney Chip Fletcher has ordered Tampa's cable station not to air part of a recent taped debate in which City Council candidate Chris Hart falsely accused his opponent of cheating former customers.

State law requires stations to prevent the broadcast of known defamatory statements. Fletcher said because Hart admitted the accusation was false, the city is legally required to stop its broadcast. If there were debate about the claim's validity, Fletcher said, the city would not act.

Complaints from Hart's opponent, City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, sparked city action.

Fletcher said it's the first time in memory that scheduled city programming has been ordered off the air.

In a debate two weeks ago between candidates for the citywide District 3 council seat, Hart claimed Capin years ago closed her bridal shop and stiffed brides on deposits. After failing to produce evidence of the claim to the St. Petersburg Times, he acknowledged a week later it was inaccurate and publicly apologized.

By that time, the debate had aired three times on the city of Tampa television station and spent days posted on the Internet, including the city's website.

After Hart's apology Thursday, Capin said she asked the county's League of Women Voters, which hosted the debate, to add a disclaimer to its broadcast. When she had not heard back by Saturday, Capin said she called Fletcher and told him, "For the next 10 days, I'll be talking about taxpayer dollars being used by (Hart) to run this false accusation about me over and over and over again."

The debate's next scheduled broadcast was not shown Monday morning.

Fletcher said the law only requires the removal of the false statement; it is the station's decision to either cut that part or cancel the entire broadcast.

Mickey Castor, president of the county's League of Women Voters, said Fletcher asked her and city station head Mindy Snyder to pull the entire debate.

"He didn't offer me that option. He just said his recommendation was for it to be pulled," Castor said. Castor said she would ask Snyder if they could edit the broadcast. Snyder could not be reached for comments.

The debate is scheduled to air three more times before Tuesday's election, including at 1:30 p.m. today. The footage has also been pulled from the Internet.

Capin said she is not satisfied with Hart's public apology "for any misinformation I conveyed."

Hart, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, said he thought his apology was enough.

On Thursday, after issuing the apology and leaving Capin a message, Hart said her campaign consultant called and requested he publicly apologize. When he told the consultant he already had, Hart said, "His words to me were, 'Gosh! How gentlemanly!' "

Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jnicas@sptimes.com.

This story has been updated to remove a comment Hart attributed to a Capin aide. The comment was disputed by the aide after initial publication.

Tampa attorney orders debate tape off air 03/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 7:20pm]
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