Tampa City attorney used personal phone to discuss Dingfelder case and other legal issues, records show

As of today, there are documents from Grimes' communications still missing from the city's public records.

Share on Nextdoor
click to enlarge Tampa City attorney used personal phone to discuss Dingfelder case and other legal issues, records show (6)
Photo via City of Tampa/Facebook
Documents show that Tampa's City Attorney used her personal cellphone to communicate with an attorney, who just months ago sued former councilman John Dingfelder, in part, for using a personal email.

Despite telling City Council members to not use their personal phones for city business, City Attorney Gina Grimes used hers to stay in regular contact with attorney Ethan Loeb during hours of phone calls between December and March of this year, according to documents obtained by Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

Last October, Loeb filed a public records lawsuit against Dingfelder, which ultimately led to his resignation as part of the the lawsuit settlement.

Texts to her personal cell show Grimes indicating when she was available to talk with Loeb. And some of the data from conversations about city business, which is required to be retained by the city and provided under public records law, were not available in the city's records.

Grimes, who worked for a real estate and land use firm from 2004-2019 before joining Mayor Jane Castor's administration, also used her personal cell to discuss a property in Tampa city limits with Steven Michelini, a consultant for developer Jon Lum. The public records lawsuit that forced Dingfelder to resign as part of the settlement terms was filed on behalf of Michelini, with Loeb as the prosecuting attorney.
In the texts, Grimes communicated with Michelini about a property he was looking into just two months before she publicly announced to the press that the the city wouldn't represent Dingfelder in his case. The lawsuit alleged that Dingfelder broke public records law by using private devices to discuss and influence city business, and that he deleted public records.

In Grimes' communications with Michelini, information from the texts was missing, including images and a PDF named "FILE 8481" that he sent to Grimes on October 5, two days before Grimes said the city would not represent Dingfelder.

When CL asked where the images and PDF were, the city attorney's office said that that's how they appeared on Grime's phone when it was scanned as part of the request made by CL. All of the attachments in the records request said that they are stored in Apple's iCloud web storage service.
click to enlarge A portion of a text exchange between Michelini and Grimes discussing a property he is interested in. - City of Tampa
City of Tampa
A portion of a text exchange between Michelini and Grimes discussing a property he is interested in.
Andrea Zelman at the city attorney's office later told CL that Grimes is out of the office this week for a long-planned family event. Zelman said that the city was working to retrieve the data. But the city data may be corrupted, Apple told city employees.  The problem is linked to Grimes using her private phone to communicate, because city phones are designed to help prevent such issues.

An hour before this story was published, Zelman got back to CL, saying that Michelini had shared what was missing from the city's records. They were photos of storage containers and other parts of the property in question, along with an article about Dingfelder's lawsuit from the Tampa Bay Business Journal. But the fact remains that the city's own records of the exchanges were not obtainable.

And there were other communications conducted from Grimes' private cell in the public records request, not with Michelini, which have similar issues involving missing data.

In Dingfelder's lawsuit, missing texts from his records were a major point of contention, along with the accusation that he collaborated with community members to influence council. He was accused of violating Chapter 119 of Florida's public records law, which all public officials, including Grimes, are subject to.

Under that law, communications between city officials must remain in tact for the public to access. Dingfelder was also accused of violating Florida's Sunshine Law, which applies specifically to public governmental officials, not necessarily city staff.
As part of Dingfelder's settlement with Loeb and Michelini, he was forced to resign from office and required to not speak with the press about the case. While CL's records request only went back to August of last year, the public records request that Dingfelder was sued over covered years of his communications.

In an email response to request for comment, Loeb added more context to the seven days in which calls were made between Grimes and himself.

Loeb explained all the reasons he called Grimes. On one call, he spoke to her in regards to a finding, in which a representative of the tech company E-Hounds debunked claims about Dingfelder's email accounts, and that the rep said he was never asked by Dingfelder to search for his public records. He also talked to Grimes about a settlement agreement that he says Dingfelder was trying to reach, in which the city would pay for attorney fees on both sides.

He contacted Grimes multiple several other times, once to speak about his office claiming that Dingfelder had deleted public records, and later to inform her that Dingfelder had informed his office that he would resign.

"As a practice, and since the public records were city property, I would keep Gina up to speed about the litigation and its developments," Loeb said.

He added that the other dates were to, "keep her abreast of developments—likely after depositions or key milestones."

Loeb's full statement about the days he spoke to Grimes is included at the end of this story.

Zelman echoed Loeb's input as to why he and Grimes were communicating. She also weighed in on why Michelini was communicating with Grimes through her personal cell phone.
It is not uncommon for land use practitioners such as Mr. Michelini, City Council members and their staff, property owners, neighborhood leaders and other citizens to contact attorneys at the City with questions about pending matters, to request help with research in city files, or simply to ask for the identity of the appropriate staff person to contact. The text messages attached to your email relate to a 2006 City code enforcement matter involving property located at 4000 South Avenue and 4820 N. Grady Avenue. The complainant, Jorge Astorquiza, owns property located at 4821 and 4823 N. Hale Avenue. The city was contacted about the status of this long-standing code enforcement matter to determine the steps required by the city in order for the property owner to bring the matter into compliance or, if not possible, whether the city would initiate a foreclosure action. The city is contacted, on an almost daily basis, with these types of inquiries. That is part of our job. And, quite often, members of the public do not know who they should contact at the City and instead reach out to Gina Grimes directly or to other attorneys in our office.
Zelman denied any comparison between Dingfelder's case and the situation with Grimes personal communications, saying that Dingfelder had deleted public records and intimidated Michelini.

"That is not the case here, where Ms. Grimes promptly provided public records from both her City of Tampa and personal cellphones," Zelman wrote. "Further, Ms. Grimes did not conduct any City business on personal email accounts."

Stephanie Poynor, President of Tampa Homeowners Association of Neighborhoods (THAN) has been outspoken about Dingfelder's resignation, claiming targeting and bullying of Tampa City Council members. Poynor is a constant participant in city council affairs.

She believes that some city officials are targeted in the name of political agendas, while others are not as subject to the same scrutiny.

"For Grimes to have communicated that way and to have information missing from her phone is very interesting," Poynor told CL. "She said the city wasn't going to represent Dingfelder, whose resignation was obviously orchestrated, for the accusations waged against him. Yet, she's using her personal cellphone to talk about city property and to stay in touch with the lawyer who was suing him. How does that work?"

Read the full responses to CL from Loeb and Zelman below: 

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia has written for The Nation, Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal, the USA Today Network and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

Scroll to read more Tampa Bay News articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

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