TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners may seek legal fees of $15,000 or more from Plant City winery owner Joe Keel for Commissioner Al Higginbotham's successful defense against an ethics complaint that Keel filed.
The commissioners will consider today whether to authorize Higginbotham's attorney, Latour "L.T." Lafferty, to seek the money from Keel. Otherwise, it would come from the county, he said.
In an interview, Lafferty said the move is justified because Keel's complaint, alleging improper interference by Higginbotham in a zoning change Keel requested, was false and malicious. The state Ethics Commission, he said, "determined that each of his allegations were completely without merit," and Keel knew some of his allegations against Higginbotham to be false.
But Keel said his complaint was "100 percent true," and the Ethics Commission investigator was misled by witnesses who didn't tell the truth.
"I hold steadfast that Higginbotham was wrong in his involvement," he said. "If I get the opportunity where I can ask the questions, maybe I can prove it."
Keel said that if the county succeeds in penalizing him for filing the complaint, it would have a chilling effect on other citizens who try to hold elected officials accountable by filing ethics complaints.
"It's going to deter other people in the future," he said. "They're going to say, 'Somebody stuck his neck out and now he's got to pay for that.' "
Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron, who specializes in public ethics issues, said state law allows an official to recoup legal defense fees if a complaint is made "with malicious intent to injure the official's reputation" and the complainant knew his statements were false or recklessly disregarded whether they were true.
"Public officers and employees should not be pinatas subject to the facts spewed about in the blogosphere," Herron said.
Asked whether it could deter legitimate complaints, Herron said Ethics Commission members raised that question during a 2007 case he handled that set precedent for such cases. But he said the commission received a near-record number of complaints last year, suggesting, "That is an empty argument."
The case arose after Keel set up a craft beer brewing operation with a tasting room in 2013 at his Keel & Curley Winery, with a state license that he said county officials approved.
He said Higginbotham and his wife, Devon, instigated complaints about noise from parties and live music at the winery, along with visits by county inspectors who told Keel he needed the rezoning — which he said cost $85,000 for fees and consulting. Keel said Al Higginbotham asked county Planning Commission member Ray Young to organize opposition within Young's church.
The county commissioners eventually voted unanimously for the rezoning, including Higginbotham.
According to the Ethics Commission investigator's report, neighbors and county staff generally backed up Al Higginbotham's statements that he or his office staff received complaints and passed them to county enforcement officers, as he routinely does, but didn't initiate them. No complaints resulted from conversations involving Devon Higginbotham.
Young told the investigator he met with his pastor, but said it wasn't because of any suggestion by Higginbotham.
The Ethics Commission cleared Higginbotham last month.
Lafferty said county commissioners agreed shortly after the complaint was filed to cover Higginbotham's legal expenses. He said the costs so far are about $9,600, but he thinks they're likely to exceed $15,000, including the cost of petitioning the Ethics Commission to hold Keel liable for the fees.
He said that "would save the county taxpayers the expense of having to defend against a frivolous complaint."
But Keel responded, "I'm not going to go down easy. I'm going to put up a fight." He said his defense will be that the investigation's conclusions were incorrect.
"My complaint wasn't baloney and I can prove that if given the chance," he said.
Higginbotham said he couldn't comment on a pending legal case.