'78 Opinion a Factor in Clay Case?

Article excerpt

A Florida attorney general's opinion in 1978 indicates that Clay

County Clerk John Keene should not have used public money to pay

a substantial portion of a $60,000 legal bill he ran up after he

was accused of ethics violation.

Most of the legal bill -- $42,000 -- was incurred when Keene

tried to recoup $5,900 he spent defending himself in front of

the Florida Ethics Commission. The 1978 opinion says the Florida

Legislature never intended public officials to be reimbursed for

pursuing their own legal actions before the commission.

While the Attorney General's Office has not researched the

specifics in Keene's case, the 1978 opinion is the prevailing

one from the agency on this issue, Assistant Attorney General

Gerry Hammond said.

". . . Unless the statutes have changed or there were [court]

cases subsequent to this," she said, "and there are none that we

are aware of."

Hammond said an attorney general's opinion is "our best legal

advice," not established case law.

In July 1995, Keene wrote a $60,830 check on the clerk's

operating account to the Jacksonville law firm of Marks, Gray,

Conroy & Gibbs. That firm represented Keene and his finance

director, Don Moore, in Ethics Commission complaints filed

against them by former County Commissioner Ron Stotler.

The complaints concerned the handling by the clerk's office,

which serves as the county's chief financial officer, of a 1993

county budget crisis.

Both complaints were ultimately dismissed. But Keene filed his

own Ethics Commission petition against Stotler, seeking to force

him to pay Keene's legal bills.

The petition failed, but Keene spent at least $42,200 in the

attempt, according to a TimesUnion analysis of Keene's legal

fees. The cost of defending the initial ethics complaint was

about $5,900.

Most of the rest of Keene's $60,830 payment went to defend

Moore, the analysis showed.

General case law authorizes public funds to be used to defend

government officials in certain legal situations that arise from

their public duties. But there has been no case law since the

1978 attorney general's opinion that specifically addresses the

use of public funds to recoup attorneys fees. …