tampabay.com

Pruitt must testify in defamation suit

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published June 30, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - A judge on Thursday ordered state Sen. Ken Pruitt to testify in a defamation lawsuit involving a close political adviser, but curtailed the scope of the deposition and approved the lawmaker's request that it not be videotaped.

Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, is expected to become Senate president in November. His testimony is wanted by attorneys for state Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, who sued political adviser Randy Nielsen, the Florida Home Builders Association and others over political mailings in 2004 that Kreegel says defamed him by saying he was "arrested" on a criminal mischief charge.

Nielsen has said he produced the mailings based on Kreegel's being charged in a 1989 filing by a prosecutor with criminal mischief. A summons was issued but never returned.

Kreegel's suit is not only about the mailings, but the aggressive efforts of lobby groups and their political strategists to use hard-hitting attacks in the closing days of elections.

Attorneys for both sides said Circuit Judge Donald Pellecchia in Punta Gorda narrowed Pruitt's testimony to one year leading up to the August 2004 primary won by Kreegel and limited questions to the specific charges in the lawsuit.

"I get to depose Sen. Pruitt," said Kreegel's attorney, Darol Carr. "There was nothing the judge ruled on that I didn't agree to in open court."

Pruitt did not attend Thursday's hearing. His attorney, Ron Meyer, had asked the judge to excuse Pruitt from testifying in the case, or short of that, a limit on discovery.

"I'm real pleased with what the judge did," Meyer said.

Although Pruitt has long employed Nielsen and his company, Public Concepts, for political strategy, Meyer said Pruitt has no knowledge about the tactics used against Kreegel.

Kreegel is interested in Pruitt because he relies heavily on Nielsen for advice and controlled a fundraising group that sent a $36,000 donation to a home builders' political committee in the 2004 campaign. It was one of several big-money transactions between fundraising groups that paid for the anti-Kreegel mailings.

Pruitt has said he and the home builders group split the cost of positive mailings to eight lawmakers to thank them for their support of the Bright Futures scholarship program.