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Attorney warns Lighthouse critics

A lawyer for the chief of the blind-services organization tells them they could face a lawsuit.

By Jodie Tillman, Times Staff Writer
Published February 20, 2008


PORT RICHEY - An attorney for the executive director of the Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind has fired warnings at two critics, threatening to sue if they don't tone down their rhetoric.

St. Petersburg lawyer Phyllis Towzey says former Lighthouse board member William W. Jones and former employee Dawn Fiumara made "outrageous accusations" about Connie Jackson-Charlot's management and billing practices. She says their language amounts to "defamation."

In a Jan. 31 letter that state officials received, Jones accused Jackson-Charlot of "a large number of improper activities," including "illegal" billings to the state and county. He also called her a "compulsive liar."

Towzey's "cease and desist" letters to Jones and Fiumara arrived late last week, just as the state Division of Blind Services wrapped up its preliminary report on its review of Lighthouse, which has state contracts worth nearly $300,000 a year to provide services to blind and visually impaired clients.

That report does not address the specific allegations in Towzey's letters, nor does it address any financial matters.

An internal audit being conducted by Stone, Parker and Co. may help clear up many questions, but it has not been made publicly available.

The state report did say, however, that Lighthouse is not serving the number of clients required by its contract. For instance, one state contract calls for Lighthouse to provide services to 18 children during the yearlong period ending in June. But only seven children are being served, the report found.

The report does not say whether the state has paid Lighthouse for 18 children or for seven. It is also unclear from the report why state officials were not aware of the discrepancy earlier.

The report did not propose any action to be taken against Lighthouse. Instead, it offered recommendations, which include increasing caseloads, though it does not say how.

Jackson-Charlot was out of the country Monday, her lawyer said.

Towzey said Monday that she knows Jones and Fiumara are free to report concerns to authorities but that they crossed the line with "malicious" statements.

"I haven't seen anything backing up the statements they're making," she said.

Towzey said she sent the letters to get the pair to stop those statements because Jackson-Charlot is worried that filing a lawsuit would taint the reputation of Lighthouse. Still, she said, she is keeping the option open.

Jones said Monday he wasn't concerned about the letter, noting that the state's preliminary report backs up some parts of his allegations. He had said in his letter to the state, for instance, that there was a discrepancy in client numbers.

Fiumara said she didn't like that the letters were trying to keep her quiet. "Who are they to tell me who I can or can't talk to?" she said. "That's my First Amendment right."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com at 727 869-6247.