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Political trick tries to turn lawsuit into mud

Did you hear the one about the developer, the lobbyist and the car salesman?

If only it were, indeed, a joke.

In this case, throw in a lawyer and you've got the typically cheap campaign stunt that rolls around nearly every election cycle in Pasco County: Somebody is suing somebody else for the sake of a last-minute headline.

Stop the presses.

This time, it is a supporter of Commissioner Jack Mariano's campaign opponent who is suing the incumbent. A faxed copy of the lawsuit arrived in the Times newsroom in Port Richey on Friday. No sense leaving political stunts to chance and the possibility the newly filed lawsuit might get overlooked in the courthouse. Heck no. You want this thing in the newspaper the same weekend the critical direct mail piece lands in Republican voters' mailboxes.

To be precise, the cast of characters in this includes Mariano, ex-salesman of automobiles turned county commissioner; Ed Collins, ex-county commissioner turned lobbyist; and developer Alex Mourtakos.

Mourtakos, as president of the Pasco Building Association two years ago, tried to raise cash to sue the county over its rewritten comprehensive land use plan and then said the trade group would run its own slate of candidates against incumbent commissioners. The heavy-handed tactics backfired when highly regarded land use attorneys started resigning their memberships in the trade group. So, let's just say Mourtakos is no stranger to political bluster.

Here is the supposed reason for the lawsuit: Mariano, in an interview, suggested Collins had a stake in Mourtakos' project, Coyote Crossings, which the commission rejected last year in a 3-2 vote. Collins and Mourtakos told Times staff writer David DeCamp that Mariano's assertion about Collins was incorrect.

It might be irrelevant if Mourtakos and Collins also weren't backing Mariano's Republican primary opponent, Rich Jenkins.

So, last week, Collins filed the lawsuit alleging Mariano's statement to a Times reporter damaged his reputation. (Fill in your own punch line here.)

Hasn't Collins ever negotiated a car purchase before? If someone sued every time a (former) auto salesman misspoke, shaded the truth, overstated the deal, had to check with his manager before agreeing to terms, or devalued the trade-in, we'd all be plaintiffs.

Even if Collins isn't familiar with car buying, he is familiar with this political ploy. This is, after all, the same Ed Collins who eight years ago helped orchestrate a news conference so a group of women could make baseless allegations against Tax Collector Mike Olson. Collins happened to be supporting Olson's opponent at the time.

It's a page from the same tired political playbook: Ask for an investigation. File a complaint. Head to court. Call a reporter. All in the hopes that some newspaper ink will stain a political opponent.

Jenkins would be wise to distance himself from these theatrics. All it really does is remind voters of his campaign ties to Collins and rekindle memories of Collins' dubious eight-year performance as a county commissioner that voters ended in 1998.

Mariano declined to comment on Collins' lawsuit. That is the benefit of incumbency, a fund-raising lead and the belief you're ahead with Election Day right around the corner. Also, nobody took the liberty of faxing the defendant a copy of the lawsuit when they sent it to the press.

The sympathetic figures in this should be Mourtakos and the building/development industry. Building permits are dawdling, tradesmen are out of work and, in multiple cases, barren dirt sits where new communities and commerce had been expected to be up and running by now.

But, as Collins' lawsuit attests, there is no sympathy for the devil. Just imagine how bad the building industry's public image must be when someone maintains his reputation is damaged by being cast as a developer.

So bad, apparently, that such an association is harmful even to the reputation of a lobbyist.

Political trick tries to turn lawsuit into mud 08/18/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 22, 2008 3:38pm]

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