Innocuous touch, or battery?

Richard Lewis and David Pugh Sr. agree that Pugh touched Lewis; then their stories differ.

Published May 11, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - City Council member Richard Lewis was still seething as he left City Hall on Monday night after losing several key votes during the council meeting.

Walking away from the building, he encountered two men he has been friendly with for years, Gary Schraut, a local real estate broker, and David Pugh Sr., the father of the mayor and a political adversary.

Both men reached out to Lewis. The council member accepted one touch as a gesture of consolation. The other he considered an attack.

Lewis has filed a criminal complaint against Pugh, accusing him of battery on an elected official. The Hernando County Sheriff's Office, which is investigating the incident, said the charge is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and $5, 000 in fines.

Lewis declined to give details of what he said happened, deferring to the sheriff's investigation. He did say that he was not physically harmed during the incident, adding, "It was an incident that needed to be reported and needed to be investigated."

But Pugh and witnesses said there was no battery. City Attorney David La Croix, who was standing next to Pugh when he spoke to Lewis, said, "It was just a shouting match between two angry men."

The incident took place about 11 p.m., immediately after Monday's contentious meeting. Lewis was clearly upset about several issues, including the decision by a city manager candidate who he was willing to back to withdraw from consideration, and the fact that no one on the board supported his move to oust La Croix.

Schraut said he saw that Lewis was steamed, and he approached Lewis and put a supportive hand on his shoulder, intending to steer him to the parking lot.

Pugh and La Croix were both standing on the walkway and as Lewis and Schraut approached, Pugh said he made a comment to Lewis about how he should be a "good loser."

At the same time, Pugh said, he instinctively reached out to touch Lewis on the arm.

Pugh, La Croix and Schraut all said that Lewis had an immediate reaction to Pugh's touch. He jumped back, saying emphatically that Pugh should not touch him, that such contact could be considered battery.

Pugh said he then told Lewis, "What are you going to do, shoot me?"

La Croix said he stepped between the men and urged Pugh to calm down. He said he told the men that they needed to take a step back so that the incident wouldn't come back to haunt them. By the time he finished talking to Pugh, La Croix said, Lewis had walked away.

Lewis said he would not give his version of events to the Times until the investigation is complete, but La Croix said that Lewis has told a deputy that Pugh came at Lewis with both hands and that La Croix had to wrap his arms around Pugh to get him away from Lewis.

La Croix said Lewis had "completely embellished" upon the incident. "It's fabricated, " he said.

Schraut said he felt bad about the incident because he is friends with both men. "There was no aggressive contact by either of the gentlemen, " he said.

Lewis, Schraut said, was just "angry and boisterous, " and after the exchange with Pugh, "clearly it went downhill really fast."

Lewis first asked Brooksville police to investigate the incident, but interim police Chief Frank Ross kicked the matter to the Sheriff's Office instead.

"Law enforcement should not be conducting investigations with their own elected officials, " Ross said. "We thought it would be in the best interest of the city for the county to investigate."

Sheriff's officials have been busy interviewing all four men as well as other people who were in the parking lot at the time. The agency could not say how long the investigation will last.

"I wish this had never happened, and it's unfortunate that it did, " Lewis said. "I do want to say that it is not in any way, shape or form politically motivated."

Schraut was not so certain, saying that the political divisions are hurting the city and this latest incident is just another example.

"It had more to do with emotions running high at the meetings than anything else, " he said. "It's sad because when they're focused on stuff like this, we're not getting the business of the city done."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 352 754-6117.