Harbour Island neighborhood groups have taken a possible first step toward a lawsuit against backers of Janet Cruz over an attack mailer in her citywide Tampa City Council race against incumbent Lynn Hurtak.
The mailer accused Hurtak of supporting “a massive hotel development” and then switching her vote “after she was paid off by the opposition.”
That defames the neighborhood groups that opposed a recent Harbour Island hotel project, said Eric Appleton, an attorney representing the South Neighborhood Association and Harbour Island Community Services Association. He said it suggests they “engaged in public corruption” by bribing a city official.
Even though the mailers didn’t name the groups or the project, “It was well known they were the prime opponents” of the hotel proposal by Tampa developer Punit Shah, Appleton said.
Residents of gated communities on the south end of the island packed council meetings in May and December to oppose it, citing traffic and pedestrian safety concerns.
In May, the council voted it down 4-2 with Hurtak and Luis Viera in favor and Bill Carlson absent.
In December, after a special master recommended approving the proposal with its size reduced from 12 stories to 10, the council again voted it down, 4-3, with Hurtak voting no along with Carlson, Charlie Miranda and Guido Maniscalco.
Joe Citro and Orlando Gudes switched from no to yes votes; Gudes said he feared the developer could successfully sue over a denial.
On Thursday, Appleton sent a letter to the political committee that sent out the mailers, Comite Politico, one of numerous committees linked to Ft. Lauderdale lawyer and heavyweight Democratic political donor Jason Blank.
The letter demands that the committee preserve documents that could become evidence in a lawsuit.
“The opposition to the hotel was basically us, and to say that we bribed a city council member, that crossed the line,” said Larry Premak, president of South Neighborhood Association. Asked whether the groups will sue, he said, “All options are on the table.”
At the time of the December vote, Hurtak told the Times she changed her vote because the project had changed. This week, she said she couldn’t elaborate because of litigation over the project.
However, she said she didn’t speak to opponents before or after either vote.
Hurtak also suggested that Cruz was responsible for the mailers and was engaging in “defamation.”
“It’s unfortunate that my opponent has to stoop to this level,” she said.
A Cruz campaign spokeswoman responded, “We have nothing to do with the mailers.”
The campaign, however, is now using wording identical to the mailers in its public statements, including calling Hurtak “Lying Lynn” and saying she “secretly meets with lobbyists and rubber stamps their socialist agenda.”
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Blank didn’t respond to phone and text messages seeking comment.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the last name of the attorney representing the South Neighborhood Association. It is Eric Appleton.