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Text messages raise questions about Tampa City Council member’s impartiality

John Dingfelder, embroiled in a lawsuit with local consultant Steve Michelini, has continued to vote on issues involving the consultant. Should he recuse himself?
OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 
Council member John Dingfelder during a city council meeting at the old city hall in downtown Tampa, Florida on Thursday, June 6, 2019.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Council member John Dingfelder during a city council meeting at the old city hall in downtown Tampa, Florida on Thursday, June 6, 2019. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 20|Updated Jan. 20

TAMPA — A lawyer representing a local business consultant who is suing City Council member John Dingfelder is asking that Dingfelder recuse himself from any discussion or vote connected to his client.

Ethan Loeb, the attorney representing consultant Steve Michelini, also questioned in a recent letter to the city whether Dingfelder should remain as a council member.

Michelini, a regular presence at City Hall, usually representing builders and other business interests, sued Dingfelder in October over allegations that the council member failed to release requested public records and threatened him in a City Hall hallway.

Dingfelder, elected to a citywide seat in 2019, has denied any wrongdoing. He has said the lawsuit is an attempt to silence him because he has criticized developers as a council member.

In that Jan. 12 letter to City Council attorney Martin Shelby, Loeb attached a series of text messages that he says raise doubt about whether Dingfelder should continue to participate in decisions on matters in which Michelini is involved.

In the letter, Loeb says the texts show Dingfelder’s bias toward Michelini.

“Next time you see Michelini, pls feel free to tell him off!!!!” read one August text between Dingfelder and his wife, Lynn Marvin Dingfelder, a day after a request was filed for records from Lynn Marvin Dingfelder’s email account.

Dingfelder told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday the remark was meant as a joke.

In another August text, made before the public records request that is the basis for the lawsuit, Dingfelder refers to Michelini’s “whining” before City Council in a text exchange with Melanie Calloway, a city official.

“I don’t think whining is competent substantial evidence,” Calloway texted. It was unclear from the exchange what she was referring to.

“Whining? ... Oh, I thought you were talking about Michelini!!!” Dingfelder responded.

In a third text exchange in June with City Council Chairman Orlando Gudes about Michelini, in which Gudes accused Michelini of lying, Dingfelder replied: “Sad. But typical”

Related: Tampa City Council member sued over public records

Dingfelder issued a statement in response to a request for comment Wednesday.

“I am proud of my decades of public service and have always been totally transparent,” said Dingfelder, adding that his attorneys and forensic experts have combed through 40,000 records producing thousands of emails and texts in response to the lawsuit. “I wish I could respond to all of the baseless accusations at this time, but my attorney has advised me to wait until after the litigation is over.”

Dingfelder also texted to say that Michelini had sued “because they are trying to silence me as a defender of neighborhoods.”

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“That’s just ludicrous,” Michelini said in response.

Added Loeb: “We’re suing him because we’re trying to hold him accountable for the behavior he exhibited. Period.” Loeb said.

The lawsuit maintains Dingfelder has used his wife Lynn’s account to conduct city business out of public eye, a violation of state public records law. Michelini also says Dingfelder threatened him in a City Hall hallway about the public records request for Lynn Dingfelder’s emails and threatened “consequences” if more requests were made. Dingfelder later apologized to Michelini for his outburst.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Dingfelder has continued to vote on city business involving Michelini, despite city attorney Gina Grimes’ office advising him not to do so.

Grimes’ office declined comment Wednesday, citing the pending litigation. Shelby also declined comment for the same reason.

Loeb’s letter threatens to sue if the city allows Dingfelder to continue to participate in matters involving Michelini or his clients.

Dingfelder’s actions mean “his continued presence on City Council should be rightfully questioned,” wrote Loeb.

When asked by the Times if he would continue to vote on issues involving Michelini’s clients, Dingfelder declined to respond, citing the advice of his attorney.

The lawsuit is currently in the deposition phase and has been assigned to Hillsborough Circuit Judge Melissa Polo.

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