The Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners is seeking reimbursement for legal expenses that resulted from Commissioner Al Higginbotham’s defense against an ethics complaint filed by Joe Keel, president of Keel and Curley Winery.
If the board’s petition is accepted by the Florida Commission on Ethics, Keel will be required to pay at least $9,600 to the county — but likely, more than $15,000, according to Higginbotham’s attorney.
Keel said in the Sept. 14 complaint that Higginbotham acted unethically in the midst of the rezoning for Keel and Curley Winery, using the weight of his position to persuade people to oppose the winery’s rezoning last summer. The rezoning allowed the business to open a craft brewery on site.
“I filed this complaint because I thought it was my civic duty as a 60-year resident of this county to let the state of Florida know what was going on, and there was never any malicious intent,” Keel said.
But the ethics commission cleared Higginbotham last month and dismissed Keel’s complaint. Now, Keel could be legally responsible for covering the board’s expenses for defending Higginbotham throughout the case.
The county commissioners met May 6, to vote on whether to submit a petition to the ethics commission, requesting that Keel be required to reimburse the county.
Mary Helen Farris from the Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office said that under certain circumstances, the state ethics code holds a complainant liable for legal fees. The ethics commission will have to assess the case of Keel and Higginbotham, but Farris said she is “fairly confident” that Keel will have to to pay.
“It’s not unusual in a lawsuit that the loser pays. It’s quite common, and frankly, it’s a way to police frivolous lawsuits,” Commissioner Victor Crist said.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner suggested an amendment to the agenda item that would require the county to reimburse Keel for his legal fees if the board’s petition fails. The board did not approve this amendment.
“It will establish a game of ping pong that could be never-ending,” Crist said.
The board voted 6-1, to submit the petition to the ethics commission. The petition will be filed within the next week, and the ethics commission will address it as early as June 5.