TAMPA, Fla. — A Tampa City Council member resigned and apologized after he was sued for failing to comply with records requests. Now, the ABC Action News I-Team has learned that he is being investigated for possible ethics violations.
John Dingfelder was the Tampa City Council member neighborhood groups said asked the right questions when it came to development.
“He would initiate a conversation and the other councilmen would pick up on it. And he was a champion of the people,” said Carol Ann Bennett, Vice President of the Tampa Homeowners Association of Neighborhoods.
Consultant Stephen Michelini represents developers proposing new construction projects. Last October, Michelini filed a lawsuit against Dingfelder alleging the council member failed to comply with public records law.
Michelini also alleged Dingfelder tried to intimidate him after a council meeting saying Dingfelder said, "Mr. Michelini would suffer consequences if any further public records requests were made.”
Proposed Development in South Tampa Started Controversy
The controversy initially centered around a proposed housing development at the site of a shopping center on Gandy Blvd. Michelini represented the developer. He requested Dingfelder’s emails about the project last year and only received 26 items.
“Taxpayers have the right to understand how government operates. And the government works for the people. Being able to see what the government is doing upon a request… of course, you should take it seriously,” said attorney Ethan Loeb, who represented Michelini in the lawsuit.
He also sought emails from Dingfelder’s and his wife’s private email accounts. He said Dingfelder never fully complied.
“There were some emails that we knew existed from other sources that were public records that were no longer retrievable from either of the private email accounts, either Mrs. or Mr. Dingfelder’s,” Loeb said.
Neighborhood activist Stephanie Poynor opposed the housing development on Gandy. He said adding 300 new housing units would contribute to more overcrowding along the busy road. She believes Michelini’s lawsuit was used as an intimidation tactic.
“When the city attorney announced four days before the lawsuit was filed that she wasn’t going to protect him, at that point, it was like throwing a chicken in a pool of piranhas,” Poynor said.
City Launches Investigation
Through the discovery process, Loeb said he uncovered dozens of emails that raised ethical questions about Dingfelder’s communications, which he turned over to Tampa City Attorney Gina Grimes.
Grimes sent an email to Dingfelder last Friday saying, “We discovered numerous emails and text messages to and from you which create issues with respect to the City of Tampa Ethics Code and/or the State Ethics Code.”
The email was accompanied by a spreadsheet of potential violations. A spokesperson told the I-Team the city has hired an outside law firm to investigate.
“The walls started coming in around him and I think he probably wanted out,” Loeb said.
Dingfelder resigned from office Monday to settle the lawsuit and an ethics complaint. As part of the settlement agreement, Dingfelder was not allowed to speak to the media about it.
“Transparency is the Bedrock of Public Service”
In an apology letter to Michelini, Dingfelder said, “Going forward, I will inform all who will listen that openness and transparency is the bedrock of public service and remind my colleagues that public records requests should be taken seriously and promptly fulfilled.”
“I think it sends a message that these laws are important. And the public’s constitutional right to public records and the Sunshine Law can’t be ignored,” said Virginia Hamrick, an attorney for the First Amendment Foundation, which supports open government and the public’s access to public records.
“Every person has a right of access to the information, whether it’s the most upstanding citizen, the most annoying citizen, or a criminal. They’re the public’s records. And anyone can ask for them,” Hamrick said.
Michelini has also sued the City of Tampa and someone operating a Facebook page critical of him under the name James Reed.
“I think the lawsuit has resulted in exactly what it was about. It was about trying to quash the voice of the citizens,” Poynor said.
“He had the absolute right to receive those records. And that’s what the issue, in this case, was really about,” Loeb said.
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