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TGH appeals ruling in effort to shield records

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


TAMPA -- While the president of Tampa General Hospital talks about opening more meetings and records to the public, the hospital's attorneys are working to get a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge to throw out a court ruling that would force them to do just that.

Hospital attorney Jim Kennedy has asked Judge Manuel Menendez to re-hear a public records lawsuit filed against the hospital by the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune. The case was heard in October by Judge Edward Ward.

Ward took himself off the case in March after the hospital argued that he was biased toward the newspapers. At the time Ward was considering the case, both the Times and the Tribune had been been gathering information about sexual harassment allegations against Ward.

Both newspapers reported on the allegations in February after the Judicial Qualifications Commission charged Ward with sexually harassing female judges and judicial assistants.

In March, Kennedy argued that Ward had ruled for the newspapers to prevent them from reporting on the sexual harassment charges. Now, Kennedy says, Ward's ruling should be thrown out for the same reason.

The hospital asked the 2nd District Court of Appeal, based in Lakeland, to send the case back to circuit court for a re-hearing by Menendez, the new judge assigned to the lawsuit.

Thomas McGowan, an attorney for the Times, called the move an obvious attempt at delay. He said the hospital had offered no proof that Ward had ruled for the newspapers to avoid bad publicity.

Indeed, both the Tribune and the Times reported on the sexual harassment allegations against Ward while he was considering legal motions critical to the newspapers.

County Commissioner Pat Frank, who will consider next week whether to give TGH $3.5-million in public funds, said Thursday she was surprised by the hospital's tactics.

"This is a private hospital that is asking for huge sums of money from the taxpayers," said Frank, referring to the hospital's attempt to get as much as $30-million from the Legislature.

"They are spending more money to try to close the door rather than open the door," she said.

Tampa General already has paid Kennedy's law firm about $569,000 on the case, and it must also pay $292,000 for the newspapers' attorneys fees, according to billing records. Kennedy could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In court papers, Kennedy argued that the government had no financial stake in Tampa General's future, except to make sure Tampa General can pay a $10 annual fee to the county hospital authority.

Kennedy also said reopening the case would only cause a "brief delay," although the Times' attorney said that delay could last a year.

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