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Tampa pays part of ex-official's legal expenses

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


TAMPA -- The city has paid part of former City Council member Rudy Fernandez's legal bills from the ambulance license scandal that may have cut short his political career.

City Attorney James Palermo agreed that Fernandez should be reimbursed for $5,000 in attorney fees tied to his testimony before a federal grand jury investigating licenses awarded to two former city officials.

But he turned down Fernandez's request that the city pay his legal costs to defend himself in a Florida Ethics Commission investigation.

The commission found last December that Fernandez probably violated the state's conflict-of-interest law by voting to award licenses to a company owned partly by David Carr, then City Council attorney and a client of his brokerage firm.

But the panel dropped its investigation because Fernandez had received erroneous legal advice before casting the vote and was no longer in office.

Fernandez declined to talk about his request.

But City Council member Bob Buckhorn said taxpayers shouldn't pay a dime of Fernandez's legal bills from the scandal.

"I think it's wrong," he said. "People ought to take responsibility for their own decisions and not stick taxpayers with the cost. I want to put this whole sordid history behind us."

Carr and then-City Council Chairman Ronnie Mason formed their own ambulance company to handle minor emergencies and were granted permits in 1997 by a government board from which Mason had recently resigned.

The federal grand jury indicted them on corruption charges in October 1998 for allegedly threatening to put a competing ambulance firm out of business. Last March, prosecutors dropped the charges just three weeks before their trial.

Fernandez was one of four Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission members to vote in favor of the permits. He was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury in March 1998.

Fernandez told a city attorney he was questioned primarily about Mason, a former city fire chief. The questions dealt with Mason's desire to form the ambulance company and his relationships with the local firefighters union, other City Council members and Carr.

Tampa attorney John M. Fitzgibbons advised Fernandez on his grand jury appearance and his anticipated appearance at the federal trial of Carr and Mason.

His $5,000 bill covered numerous meetings, dealings with the U.S. attorney's office and other matters connected to representing Fernandez, "all of which relate to events which took place while he was a public official," Fitzgibbons wrote Palermo in a June 23 letter.

Public officials usually are entitled to legal representation at public expense in lawsuits that arise from what they do in their official capacity that serves the public interest, Palermo wrote to Fernandez June 20. The issue isn't so clear in criminal proceedings.

Because Fernandez could have faced a lawsuit or criminal charges from his grand jury testimony, Palermo wrote, his legal defense "could serve a public purpose." He also noted that the grand jury's questions dealt with Fernandez's duties as a City Council member.

The ethics commission investigation was another matter, Palermo said. A state appeals court ruled such an investigation was not a lawsuit.

The commission found probable cause that Fernandez violated Florida's conflict-of-interest law because his vote for the ambulance permits benefited Carr and himself -- not the public. "As such . . . your vote was deemed to be for a private purpose," Palermo wrote.

With the ethics case and trial looming, Fernandez abandoned his bid for a third council term in December 1998. He said spending four years more years on the job would take away too much time from his family and stock brokerage.

- Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettel@sptimes.com.

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