TAMPA — The day before he agreed to resign from Tampa City Council, John Dingfelder was told he committed potential local and state ethics law violations after text messages showed he may have mixed his private job as a real estate agent with his public role of council member.
Representing private clients in matters dealing with the city of Tampa is prohibited by the city ethics code. State law also bars such conflicts of interest in which officials seek to use their public office for private gain.
The allegations surfaced after a Feb. 18 letter to city attorney Gina Grimes from Ethan Loeb, the attorney representing a developer consultant who had sued Dingfelder over what he says are public records law violations. The letter accuses Dingfelder of attempting to communicate with other elected officials outside of public meetings and deleting public records.
Grimes said she and three other members of the city’s legal team reviewed hundreds of text messages and emails from Dingfelder and other council members “to determine the validity of the Loeb allegations,” according to a March 11 memo to Dingfelder.
“We discovered numerous emails and text messages to and from you which create issues with respect to the city of Tampa Ethics Code and/or the state Ethics Code,” Grimes’ memo stated.
She briefed Dingfelder by telephone on Thursday, but honored his request to delay a personal meeting to discuss the matter until Tuesday. On Friday, Grimes sent her memorandum by email and Dingfelder agreed to settle the case from Stephen Michelini, the developer consultant, by resigning from the council.
The settlement includes a gag order prohibiting Dingfelder from elaborating on the reasons for his resignation. His supporters have said they believe Dingfelder could not afford to continue a legal fight.
On Tuesday, Dingfelder responded to the allegations in Grimes’ memo, which he said were not part of lawsuit settlement.
“I have not done anything unethical. I always made it abundantly clear that I would recuse myself (from votes). If and when there’s ever a formal ethics charge raised as it is related to these matters then I will defend myself vigorously,” Dingfelder told the Tampa Bay Times.
Dingfelder said he dropped his clients last year after he said Grimes showed him an updated ethics opinion from the state. He said Grimes and the legal staff said they had been unaware of the opinion.
“All of a sudden they said, ‘John, you can’t really be a lawyer, can’t really be a Realtor involved with anything in the city limits.’ It was news to everybody. It was news to me, ” said Dingfelder, who served on the council previously.
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He also said he was never paid by the real estate clients.
Grimes’ review showed multiple text messages from Dingfelder regarding the Showmen’s Rest project in which the Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association sought to sell a part of its property on North Boulevard to Skyline 41 Investments, whose president is Steven Eshkenazi.
Dingfelder was the real estate agent representing the showmen’s association. Meanwhile, Eshkenazi sought to rezone 1.56 acres of the Showmen’s property for as many as 15 houses. That became a highly controversial proposal opposed by the community amid fears there may have been graves on the land.
The review by the city’s legal staff of Dingfelder’s text messages showed:
In June, Dingfelder texted city stormwater engineer Alex Awad advising he had “his realtor hat on” and there was a new buyer for the Showmen’s property who was discussing issues with the Southwest Florida Water Management District or the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission. He asked Awad to meet “us” at the site to “look at a manhole and discuss alleged wetland,” according to city records.
In another text message later in June, Dingfelder asked Awad if he ever found historic city records regarding the parcel.
Dingfelder terminated his contract as the listing real estate agent in a Sept. 28 email to Teresa Caddick, who represented Showmen’s Rest.
The next day, Dingfelder texted a constituent that the resident didn’t need to attend the Sept. 29 council meeting because the Showmen’s issue was being delayed, but “don’t quote me,” the text read.
In other instances, texts showed Dingfelder contacted Awad as “realtor/attorney” for NEO homes and contacted Water Department director Chuck Weber “hoping Weber can help (Dingfelder’s) client with outstanding water bill from earlier tenant.”
Grimes said the text messages raised enough concerns that she wanted a review by outside legal counsel for a “determination of their validity and a recommendation as to the action required, if any. This is being done in an effort to minimize disruption to the operations of the city that may be caused by an internal review of the Loeb allegations and ethics issues.”
Mayoral spokesman Adam Smith said Tuesday the city still plans to seek the outside review even though Dingfelder no longer is in office.
After Eshkenazi walked away from the proposed sale in September, the association continued to pursue a rezoning of the land. The council rejected the request last month by a 6-0 vote. Dingfelder did not attend the meeting.