Hillsborough Taps Out Against Winery Owner

click to enlarge Hillsborough Taps Out Against Winery Owner - screen grab, keelandcurleywindery.com
screen grab, keelandcurleywindery.com
Hillsborough Taps Out Against Winery Owner

It looks like the county wimped out in their precedent-setting reimbursement for defense costs case against the owner of Keel & Curley Winery in east Hillsborough.

Owner Joe Keel filed ethics charges against Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham in September of 2014 claiming that the commissioner used the power of his office illegally, trying to put Keel's winery out of business He claimed that Higginbotham sent droves of code enforcement inspectors to the winery to find code violations. Higginbotham claimed that his office had received numerous complaints from local citizens, however, Keel said he never saw the kind of opposition that Higginbotham claimed existed.

Keel said the commissioner was biased against the winery for religious reasons, being that they served alcohol.

Higginbotham hired a high profile attorney to represent himself. If found guilty, the commissioner would have been personally liable for the legal costs.

The ethics commission ended up dismissing the case because they couldn't fully substantiate the evidence that Keel had submitted. As a result, the county had to pay the commissioner's legal expenses.

One thing worth noting. When a case is dismissed, it doesn't necessarily mean the person charged didn't do what the accuser claimed was done. Many times it merely means that there was not enough evidence to convict, which I think was the case here. Keel had a few witnesses that seemed to be very credible, however, some of his evidence was deemed to be hearsay because it came from third party sources. In addition, a couple of witnesses suddenly changed their stories. Keel felt that the sudden change in stories might have been due to fear of retribution by a powerful official.

After the ethics charge got dismissed, Hillsborough County then did something they've never done before with an ethics case. They asked the ethics commission to go after Keel for the court costs that they paid. In order to win reimbursement they would have to prove that Keel lied with malicious intent when he filed the ethics complaint.

BTW, way back when the County Commission approved going after Keel for Higginbotham's defense costs, they discussed the number being approximately $9,600. Keel says that the original number mysteriously mushroomed to $24,000+ by the time they sent an official petition to the Ethics Commission. Mysterious is certainly the right word. 

Keel, being the fighter that he is, vowed that he would fight it for as long as it took. His attorney fired off a strong response to the county's petition for reimbursement. The filed response was so powerful that the prosecutor for the Ethics Commission decided to ask the Ethics Commission to dismiss the reimbursement claim entirely.

Facing the imminent dismissal of the claim at the Ethics Commission Hearing scheduled for July 23, 2015, Higginbotham's attorney, L.T. Lafferty, sent a letter to the commission wimping out at the very last minute. Maybe Higginbotham should reimburse the Ethics Commission for all the time they wasted in processing this reimbursement petition which, as it turned out, had no merit.

Below is a copy of his tap-out letter dropping the claim.

If Higginbotham and the county were trying to get even with Joe Keel for filing ethics charges, they failed miserably. Joe Keel is a determined fighter trying to hold our elected officials accountable. Citizens shouldn't be afraid to file charges against officials if they have evidence and feel that the state ethics laws have truly been violated. Thank God Mr. Keel wasn't afraid to defend his right to file.

I asked Mr. Keel for a comment about winning the final phase of this battle.

"Sometimes good does prevail over evil," he said.

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