A decision by the Jackson County Ethics Commission is still pending.




A decision by the Jackson County Ethics Commission in April to pursue litigation against eight county legislators has not yet been filed, says Chairman Carol Grimaldi, because comissioners are waiting to see what legislators may say or do.

The commission decided in April to pursue litigation to compel six Jackson County Legislators, and two former county legislators, to reveal whether or not they had paid a $1,012 legal bill they owed in a counterclaim against former fellow legislator Robert Stringfield. Legislators filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit against Stringfield after he filed a Sunshine lawsuit against them, alleging they violated the state’s open meetings act. Both cases have been dropped.

“Contacts between our counsel and the counsel for the respondents since our last meeting indicates that there is reason to discuss this further before the option of expensive and time-consuming litigation is used,” Grimaldi said, in an e-mail. “Based on the possibility, no matter how remote, that this matter might yet be resolved without need to resort to litigation, we believe that it is prudent and in the best interests of the taxpayers of Jackson County to explore this option completely.”

The county paid about $140,000 to defend legislators in the Sunshine case. The amount owed attorneys representing both the Ethics Commission and legislators in the current case was not available at press time.

The eight legislators involved are Fred Arbanas, Scott Burnett, Henry Rizzo, Bob Spence, Dan Tarwater, Dennis Waits, and former legislators Rhonda Shoemaker and Eugene Standifer. Newly elected legislators Theresa Garza Ruis and Greg Grounds are not involved.

The commission ruled in 2006 that the legislators owed at least $1,012 to The Wirken Law Group, a private attorney, to be divied up between them. Legislators had wrongly believed they could use county tax dollars to pay for their defense in the malicious prosecution lawsuit.

The commission then sought to confirm that legislators had paid this debt, but James Wirken, attorney representing the legislators, claimed the information was protected under attorney-client privilege.

The commission disagreed, and issued subpoenas to the legislators, compelling them to appear at a hearing in December to prove they had each paid. Legislators Arbanas, Spence and Tarwater indicated to the commission they had paid their share of the balance. The remaining legislators allowed Wirken to represent them in the hearing, where he continued to assert the information was protected under attorney-client privilege.

At the April meeting, commission members also decided to order a transcript of its recorded December hearing, needed to file a petition in circuit court. However, Grimaldi said a transcript of the December hearing will only be required if the commission takes the case to court.

Grimaldi stressed that no decisions from the April meeting have been waived and will still be implemented if the matter is not resolved.

“We are simply waiting to see what the legislators do or say. All we want is an answer to the question: did you comply with our earlier ruling? If we can find that out without the expense of a lawsuit or even production of a hearing transcript, everyone is better off for it. The fact that there has been communication, and it was all by telephone and I was apprised by our counsel it had occurred, gives us some reason to think this is possible. All decisions will be made in a public meeting, including consideration of new information that could cause the Commission to take other action. So nothing has changed.”