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Campaign attacks prompt libel suit by defeated Hillsborough County commissioner

TAMPA — Political campaigns are often nasty affairs, with candidates slinging bare-knuckle accusations and counter-punches.

But former Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair says attacks on his record last fall were so over the top they amounted to libel. He filed suit Wednesday claiming Kevin Beckner, who defeated him in November, defamed him in campaign mailers and ads.

Blair argues that Beckner leveled false allegations of self-dealing and racism that exposed him to "hatred, contempt" and "ridicule," on his way to election victory.

"This wasn't negative campaigning. It was false campaigning," Blair said during a news conference to announce the suit. "My children have come home from school crying from some of the things that were said."

Blair said he wants to restore his reputation and be compensated for lost wages and earning potential.

Beckner, a Democrat, snapped back Wednesday, saying any statements he made about his Republican opponent were rooted in facts. And he accused Blair of wasting taxpayers' money with a frivolous lawsuit that will tie up court time and distract from his commission duties.

"If Brian Blair's looking for someone to sue, he should sue himself," Beckner said. "He defamed his own character and integrity when he consistently voted for special interests and self interests instead of the interests of the people of Hillsborough County."

A difficult challenge

Claims of dirty dealing in political contests are hardly unusual. And pursuing legal action to back it up may be a growing phenomenon, says Sandra Baron, executive director of Media Law Resource Center, which tracks libel litigation nationally.

"I don't have any statistics to back it up," Baron said. "But it happens more frequently than we might imagine."

But a public official faces a difficult challenge in proving libel. They must show that the statements were both defamatory and made with reckless disregard for the truth.

"It sort of goes to the core of what the First Amendment was designed to protect: political speech," said Dana McElroy, a media law attorney with the firm Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold, in Fort Lauderdale. "Great latitude is given where you're speaking in the context of a political campaign about a public official.

"That's not to say that it's impossible."

Blair's lawsuit is based on claims Beckner made in a series of mailers, as well as ads in Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper that were aimed at black readers.

Among the alleged false statements is that Blair "voted to spend $1 million of our tax money on his personal lake."

The assertion was based on a St. Petersburg Times story that showed Blair voted to spend nearly that much to clean up a series of lakes, including one behind his home, even though it was not a top county priority. The amount spent on the entire cleanup ended up being much less.

Pay raise, pay freeze?

Blair and his attorney argued Wednesday that he never voted to spend $1 million on just the lake behind his home. And they noted it is not his personal lake, but one bordered by several homes.

The lawsuit challenges Beckner's assertion in another mail piece that Blair "gave himself a pay raise." That claim was based on Blair's opposition to a pay freeze in a July 2007 board discussion.

Blair says the statement is patently false since commissioner pay is set by state formula.

Beckner says refusing a pay freeze is the same as agreeing to a pay hike.

The lawsuit says it was false to say Blair cut "funding to shelters that help women and children," as Beckner said in a campaign funding.

Blair said he didn't cut funding, but opposed a 2006 request for money for a new domestic violence center. The advocates hadn't followed proper county procedures in seeking the money.

Though he supported a proclamation recognition of Robert E. Lee's birthday, Blair said he was not a "sponsor of Robert E. Lee Day," as asserted in a Sentinel-Bulletin ad. Being a sponsor has specific meaning, and simply supporting a proclamation is not the same, said Blair's attorney, Chris Rodems with the Barker, Rodems & Cook firm.

Blair also denies that he supports flying the confederate flag, as asserted in the same ad. Beckner said Wednesday that he based that claim on statements made by Blair during a campaign forum, which the Times could not verify.

"It's important for people to know that, even in elections, a candidate for office cannot make false statements," Rodems said. "The law does not say you can take something that hints of truth and stretch it into something that isn't true."

Beckner said the lawsuit argues semantics, and little more. He said it shows poor sportsmanship by Blair, a former pro wrestler who coaches youth athletics and mentors other children.

Beckner has retained Tampa attorney Barry Cohen to defend him in the lawsuit. Cohen said Blair lost fair and square based on his record.

"The people knew what he stood for as an elected official and they rejected him, and now he's being a crybaby," Cohen said. "When he was a wrestler, I heard he was a crybaby when he lost. And he's still a crybaby."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Campaign attacks prompt libel suit by defeated Hillsborough County commissioner 03/11/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 12, 2009 12:00am]

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