Hillsborough Commissioner Higginbotham refutes ethics violations

Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham is now trying to refute the ethics charges filed by Keel and Curley Winery owner Joe Keel. Keel says that Higginbotham and his wife, Devon, waged a secret campaign to shut down his Plant City winery because they opposed the winery's operation for personal reasons. The story got juicier when Higginbotham responded to the charges in an interview with the Plant City Observer.

The Florida Ethics Commission is now reviewing the charges made by Keel. If accepted, the case will be investigated and heard by the commission. In the complaint, Keel charges that Higginbotham used the power of his office to cater to his own personal preference in sending the county goons from various agencies to shut down the winery's beer tasting operation. And that these clandestine activities were done just before Keel's scheduled rezoning hearing on August 12, 2014. Keel filed for rezoning to bring his beer tasting operation in line with county code. As a county commissioner that would be voting on this rezoning, Higginbotham is barred from discussing the case with the public and other commissioners prior to the final hearing.

Keel says that county agencies swarmed over his winery within days of each other, examining everything with a fine tooth comb. He was issued two code violations. Then the county was preparing to seek a cease and desist order to immediately stop his business operation. They claimed that they were sent by Commissioner Higginbotham's office.

Here's where it gets juicier. I contacted Joe Keel to see if he wanted to refute the refuter.

Keel claims that Devon Higginbotham attended opposition meetings in an attempt to mobilize anti-winery support before the rezoning hearing occurred. And he maintains that he's got reliable witnesses that can attest to that. They took photographs and videos of Devon's car at one of the meetings.

He also charges that the Higginbotham's asked Hillsborough Planning Commissioner Ray Young, a deacon in the First Baptist Church of Plant City, to act as an intermediary and ask the pastor to rally the congregation against the winery's operation. The church's pastor, Brian Stowe, refused to get involved. Separate ethics charges have been filed against Commissioner Ray Young for his involvement in the case.

And what does Higginbotham have to say about the charges?

His answer to the complaints came in an interview done by the Plant City Observer. To the charge that he and his wife worked secretly to raise opposition to the winery, he said, "Devon has no knowledge of this...she did not know or attend meetings"

With regard to the commissioner's own involvement in the anti-winery campaign, he was quoted as saying, “I didn’t even know where (the neighbors) lived until I read the complaint. I have no idea what he’s talking about.”

No idea what Keel is talking about?...or where the neighbors lived? Hmmmm...the first resident that the Higginbotham's reportedly approached is a wood worker that's done work for Devon Higginbotham's development company, according to Keel. His name is Ronniel Bowe. He and his wife, Wynell, live directly across the road from the winery. Bowe told Keel that the Higginbotham's came to his house a while back to ask them to file a complaint against the winery's operation. The Bowe's refused to file anything because they had no problem with the winery. If Al doesn't know where they live or who they are, Devon should. After all, she and Bowe had, and may still have, an ongoing business relationship.

These days it's a little unusual that a politician would give their side of the story to the press while the charges are still pending, especially since the Ethics Commission maintains confidentiality until the case is finalized. In the past, he's had ethics charges filed against him and never directly refuted the charges to the press. Could it be that the commissioner is a little worried about his current re-election chances against challenger Pat Kemp?

In any case, both sides can't be telling the truth. So who's fibbing?

"There is no doubt he (Higginbotham) is lying, and his lies are blatant", said Keel. "The things he did were self-serving, as well as, prejudicial toward myself and my business. I've got witnesses that can prove what I'm saying is true if the Ethics Commission is willing to move forward and investigate it."

Even though Keel won his rezoning case on August 12, 2014, he still decided to file charges. "My filing was not about winning or losing the rezoning. I filed because the tactics used against me by Al Higginbotham were deplorable, as well as, unethical. Without the overwhelming support of the community that I had, he would have been able to kill my business."

Illustration source: Anton Emdin

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.