1. Opinion

Editorial: Ken Hagan should drop effort to recover attorney's fees in ethics complaint

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan says he's standing on principle in his effort to collect $7,800 spent defending him against ethics charges that eventually were dismissed. If so, it's the wrong principle. But Hagan's strident position rings less of altruism than it does of bald-faced revenge.

And in the end, as Steve Contorno of the Tampa Bay Times has reported, Hagan and the slim commission majority supporting his clawback attempt are rolling the dice against long odds that they won't end up costing taxpayers even more money.

The complaints stem from a contract awarded Parsons Brinckerhoff to conduct public outreach for Go Hillsborough, the county's failed 2016 effort to bring voters a plan for improving the woeful state of transportation affairs in Hillsborough County.

Critics said the company was chosen because it was a client of well-connected Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham, who has provided advice to Hagan through the years — as well as to his commission colleague Sandy Murman and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigated. State Attorney Mark Ober determined Leytham did not violate the county's lobbying ordinance and found no evidence she was paid by Parsons Brinckerhoff to intervene with the county on her behalf.

Meantime, the critics — including George Niemann of Dover — had lodged complaints with the Florida Commission on Ethics that took two years to finally resolve. The Ethics Commission determined in October that it had no probable cause to proceed.

That should have been the end of it. It was for Murman and Buckhorn. Hillsborough spent $2,820 defending Murman and the city of Tampa paid $5,000 on Buckhorn's outside counsel.

But Hagan felt compelled to climb a high horse.

He called the complaints "nothing more than a political hit piece at the taxpayers' expense."

He may be right. But in this case, going after the complainants to collect attorney fees causes more harm than good to the cause of integrity in government. Hagan should recognize the chilling effect his actions will have on private citizens who wish to avail themselves of one of the few opportunities afforded them to challenge powerful government interests.

And so should his colleagues. Among the four votes to go after the complainant, one, inexplicably, was Murman's — even as she said, "That's not the type of tactic I would choose to move in. It's over for me."

The other two commissioners, besides Hagan, were Al Higginbotham and Les Miller.

Perhaps Hagan is emboldened by recent decisions that support collecting attorneys fees from individuals who complain to the Ethics Commission.

In September, an administrative law judge recommended the Ethics Commission make individuals repay Flagler County $311,666 for five complaints that the judge determined were filed with "reckless disregard" for facts and as part of an organized effort to influence a county election.

The Hillsborough case doesn't approach the severity of this pattern. It's true that Niemann has filed 10 complaints with the Ethics Commission — but across a decade, and over a variety of concerns.

If Hagan really is concerned about a waste of taxpayers' money, perhaps he could choose to commit his own funds to his effort. The commission vote last week was to pay an outside attorney up to $10,000 in public funds — to collect the $7,400 paid to that same attorney defending Hagan earlier.

But if this really is the commissioner's motive, he should heed the findings of Contorno's most recent story on the issue:

Of the 2,189 complaints filed since 2007 with the Ethics Commission, less than 2 percent of defendants sought reimbursement for their fees. Among the 37 reimbursement cases finalized during that period, 30 were dismissed, two were settled and five ended in an awarding of payment.

With odds like that, Hagan should consider playing with his own money. Or just leave the dice on the table.

Editor's note: This editorial has been modified to reflect the following correction: George Niemann was not the petitioner of a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics that was the subject of an effort by Hillsborough County to recover $17,000 in attorney fees in the case. An editorial in the Tampa Tribune regional edition of the Tampa Bay Times on Nov. 26 was incorrect on this point.