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Sarasota Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010 8 years ago

Barbetta sued over e-mails

by: Robin Roy City Editor

Two groups that filed a lawsuit against the county and city, which claimed both held secret negotiations to bring the Baltimore Orioles to Sarasota, has now filed a lawsuit against County Commission Chairman Joe Barbetta.

The suit, from Citizens for Responsible Government and Citizens for Sunshine, alleges that during a public-records request, Barbetta did not fully disclose all e-mails from his personal e-mail address.

The groups made that request in September. Barbetta submitted more than 27,000 e-mails, but the lawsuit claims that there were at least 28 e-mails that were not disclosed.

“How many other e-mails are out there?” asked Andrea Mogensen, attorney for the citizens groups.

Barbetta said he thought the public-records request was for baseball-related e-mails and that some of the e-mails cited in the lawsuit were newspaper articles on a variety of subjects that he read at home and forwarded to friends and colleagues from his personal e-mail account.

“I can’t access my public account at home,” he said. “I guess because I’m an elected official, I have to disclose every e-mail, even if it’s to or from a personal friend. It gets to a point that it’s ludicrous.”

Michael Barfield, Mogensen’s legal consultant, said he ignored many e-mails in which Barbetta simply sent a link to a newspaper story. But there are some in which Barbetta wrote comments along with the link.

One of the 28 e-mails mentioned in the lawsuit was from Sarasota resident Millie Small, whom Barbetta called a close friend. Small, who happens to be a vocal advocate for a new spring-training stadium, spoke on the subject numerous times in commission meetings.

“You can’t just make friends with everyone and then say it’s not public business,” said Mogensen.

The subject of the e-mail in question, though, was not about baseball. It concerned the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

In fact, Barbetta said many of the e-mails that the lawsuit cites had nothing to do with baseball. Some deal with energy programs, Siesta Key Village construction and job growth.

But Mogensen said, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what is in the e-mails.

“Irrespective of how important they are, when you request them, he has a legal duty to provide them,” she said. “He failed that duty. We don’t know why.”

Barfield said Barbetta had a history of trying to influence people behind the scenes over baseball, citing an e-mail the county commissioner wrote in October 2008, in which he provided Boston Red Sox supporters with a list of talking points and asked that his name not be associated with the talking points.

During a Jan. 26 County Commission meeting, Barbetta laid into the citizens groups and the attorneys suing the county and city, calling the lawsuit frivolous.

The lawsuit against Barbetta was filed a week later. The commissioner said he and county attorney Steve DeMarsh briefly discussed whether there was a link between the two events.

Mogensen dismissed that notion, saying the lawsuit against Barbetta has been in the works for months and the only reason it wasn’t filed sooner is that she double- and triple-checked all her facts to make sure they were accurate.

The plaintiffs are asking that Barbetta’s computer be examined to determine if there are more undisclosed e-mails.

On Feb. 8, a judge ordered Barbetta to provide by the end of the month a written reason why the plaintiffs’ request should be denied and called a Feb. 16 court hearing. During the hearing Mogensen plans to ask for an immediate injunction to stop Barbetta from using his computer.

Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].

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