Tampa local consultant sues former City Council candidate

Steve Michelini’s lawsuit accuses John Godwin of creating a fake Facebook account to defame him.
John Godwin, pictured in center, ran unsuccessfully for a Tampa City Council seat in 2019, losing to council member Charlie Miranda (left). Joe Robinson, right, also ran for the seat.
John Godwin, pictured in center, ran unsuccessfully for a Tampa City Council seat in 2019, losing to council member Charlie Miranda (left). Joe Robinson, right, also ran for the seat.
Published July 8, 2022|Updated July 8, 2022

TAMPA — A military intelligence worker and former City Council candidate has been sued by a local business consultant over a fake Facebook account that was harshly critical of him and other Tampa notables.

Steve Michelini — a fixture at Tampa City Hall since he worked for former mayor Bob Martinez in the 1970s — filed a defamation suit this week against John Godwin, who ran unsuccessfully against Charlie Miranda for a council seat in 2019.

The amended complaint filed Thursday extends a legal action begun in February when Michelini began his legal search for the person or people behind the “James Reed” FaceBook account. The account mercilessly panned Michelini, Mayor Jane Castor, members of the media and other council members, including Miranda.

In May, Ethan Loeb, Michelini’s attorney — who is also involved in legal actions about former council member John Dingfelder and council member Orlando Gudes — subpoenaed Godwin and his wife for their electronic devices.

Related: City Council candidate subpoenaed over social media accounts

Godwin fought the request, said Loeb.

“We know that Mr. Godwin’s home address contained devices where messages and postings to the account were accomplished. We have tried to reach out to Mr. Godwin to find out additional information. He has not responded, unfortunately,” Loeb texted Friday.

The amended complaint states that “Godwin the catfish” appropriated the identify of a French businessman to create the account.

The lawsuit lists Godwin’s occupation as military intelligence.

Godwin declined comment pending a discussion with his attorney Friday morning.

The case is about more than Godwin. Loeb has made multiple public records requests seeking to tie council member Bill Carlson to the account. The filing includes a text exchange between the two men with Godwin congratulating Carlson on a “tough vote:” and Carlson thanking him for the support.

The suit refers to Carlson as Godwin’s “friend and close colleague.” Carlson has said he knows Godwin only through his role as a neighborhood association leader in Bayshore Beautiful, where they both live.

Loeb’s office provided a handful of other communications to the Times on Friday. Carlson wished Godwin “Happy Birthday” on Facebook messenger. And the two texted one another handful of other times, discussing topics such as city politics.

Loeb said Carlson was included in the lawsuit because Godwin was “engaging” with him, along with Dingfelder, days before the Reed account was created “to make favorable postings about their votes on city council.”

“The James Reed account was being utilized to promote both Dingfelder and Carlson,” Loeb texted.

The lawsuit “has nothing to do with me,” Carlson texted later Friday, saying his communications with Godwin were no different than with “numerous people on a regular basis.”

“I have a serious concern with suing everyone who makes a negative comment on social media,” Carlson texted, saying if someone has a complaint about a land-use vote, “there is a legal appeal process. Litigation should not be used as political weapon.”