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Law firm pays for term limits suit

As Fred Thomas prepares to sink more of his fortune into the fight to get a county term-limit referendum on the November ballot, a local law firm is putting its force behind the effort to keep it off.

Thomas, a former Clearwater city commissioner who heads the Eight is Enough political committee, says his group will intervene in a lawsuit filed last week by the wife of Tim Johnson, a senior partner at Johnson, Blakely, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns of Clearwater.

The lawsuit seeks to stop county commissioners from putting on the ballot the referendum, which would limit county commissioners and constitutional officers to eight years in office. It was filed the same day the supervisor of elections certified the last of 48,705 signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot.

Though the lawsuit was filed by Johnson's wife, Clair, Johnson said that his law firm is paying the bills. Marion Hale, a partner at Johnson Blakely, is handling the law suit on behalf of Mrs. Johnson.

"This is a law firm effort," Johnson said.

Johnson said he and his wife share the same opinion of term limits.

"She has more time than I do to attend depositions and hearings," he said. "But we share a common belief that voters ought to have their choice if they want to vote a politician into office for eight or 12 or even 15 years."

Thomas said it is hypocritical for Johnson to say he is for voter choice but then try to block voters from deciding the referendum.

Thomas, the millionaire founder of Pinch-A-Penny pool supply stores, will bankroll Eight is Enough's legal battle. Companies that he owns already have loaned the campaign about $200,000 since 1994.

About $21,000 of that has gone to lawyers at the Tampa firm of Glen, Rasmussen and Fogarty, records show. An additional $162,000 has been spent soliciting signatures and volunteers through mailings prepared by Direct Mail Productions of Oldsmar.

Thomas said he will spend whatever is necessary to get the referendum on the ballot.

"They don't have luggage racks on hearses," he said. "We'll fight this thing up to the Supreme Court if we have to."

Though county commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to allow the county attorney to defend against the Johnson lawsuit, Thomas said he doesn't trust the county to fight the suit vigorously. None of the commissioners supports the referendum.

"You can't let the wolf live inside the chicken coop," Thomas said.

Eight is Enough sued the county after the supervisor of elections disqualified about 20,000 signatures gathered by the group before the November 1994 general election.

Judge Douglas Baird sided with the county in May, and Eight is Enough is appealing that ruling.

Coincidentally, Baird also will hear arguments in the Johnson lawsuit Aug. 29. The clerk of court assigns judges to cases using a random selection computer program.

Thomas said that Johnson, Blakely has a vested interest in keeping the referendum off the ballot.

"They make their livings lobbying government officials," he said. "Every time a new one comes in, they have to retrain them."

Johnson said the law is on his side.

"It's a shame that Fred Thomas can't address this on a legal footing as opposed to expressing his petulance," he said. "We look forward to seeing him in court."