Friday, October 15, 2021

Civil case against North Port city commissioner allowed to proceed by county judge (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)

More Florida corruption -- North Port City Commissioner alleged committed electronic eavesdropping on activists. From Sarasota Herald-Tribune: 

Civil case against North Port city commissioner allowed to proceed by county judge

Earle Kimel

Sarasota Herald-Tribune

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A civil suit against North Port City Commissioner Debbie McDowell for eavesdropping on a March 23, 2020 meeting of residents seeking to separate from the city was allowed to proceed, after Sarasota County Court Judge David L. Denkin denied a motion to dismiss charges.

NORTH PORT – A Sarasota County Court judge ruled in favor of residents seeking a jury trial in their case against North Port City Commissioner Debbie McDowell for eavesdropping on an electronic meeting where they discussed strategy regarding efforts to contract the city limits. 

County Court Judge David L. Denkin on Wednesday denied a motion to dismiss the complaint filed by McDowell. He also granted a motion to dismiss the complaint filed on behalf of Michael Wasylik, the resident who supplied McDowell with login information for the March 23, 2020 Citrix Webex meeting. 

That complaint was dismissed without prejudice and could be filed again by Luke Lirot, the attorney representing the West Villagers for Responsible Government – the entity that ultimately resulted from the Webex session. 

Wasylik’s attorney, Morgan Bentley, said Thursday that they were pleased with Denken’s ruling. 

“We would have preferred that he dismiss it with prejudice but we understand why he didn’t,” Bentley said. “And given that there are no facts that tie some kind of conspiracy between Mr. Wasylik and Ms. McDowell I would hope the plaintiff leaves Mr. Wasylik out of this as they continue their fight with Ms. McDowell.” 

While Wasylik passed on login information to McDowell, he did not intercept it and was merely passing on information he received from another party, Bob Baker. 

Denkin wrote that nothing in the amended complaint “shows that Wasylik undertook special effort or means to convince, instruct, persuade or even request McDowell to do so... the fact that Wasylik did not stop McDowell from listening in on the conversation does not constitute procurement.” 

Lirot said Wednesday that he would move forward with discovery and amending the suit to seek relief from Wasylik. 

He also plans to continue with discovery in an effort to strengthen the residents’ civil case against McDowell. 

“We anticipated that we had a very strong argument supported by the facts and the law, and the judge obviously agreed with us,” Lirot said. 

Attorney Morgan Bentley said he hoped no further action would be taken against his client, Michael Wasylik, following a ruling by Sarasota County Court Judge David L. Denkin.

The plaintiffs, Victor Dobrin, John Meisel, Paul Kahle, Jennifer Zambrano and Glena Mix are seeking a jury trial – and each could be awarded $1,000 in damages and the city, which is defending McDowell could pay for their attorney’s fees – but Lirot did not rule out seeking a summary judgment. 

“Based on everything we have so far, respectfully, I don’t see we have much left to decide,” Lirot said. “We have clear admissions of conduct that meet the elements of the statute, so I think we can be entitled to a summary judgment.” 

The residents are seeking civil damages against McDowell for “intentionally intercepting a wire, oral or electronic communication in violation of a state statue that requires consent from all parties on a communication. 

Denkin did not accept the defense offered by attorney Nikki C. Day of Bryant, Miller, Olive that the complaint filed by Lirot failed to establish the online meeting as a “wired communication.” 

Instead, he cited several court cases where “wireless” communications are indeed wired communicationsbecause cellular networks use wire and cable networks to complete a call. 

Day did not respond to an email sent Wednesday evening, seeking comment. 

McDowell has already admitted to listening to the Webex strategy session. 

Attorney Luke Lirot will continue to press his clients civil case against North Port City Commissioner Debbie McDowell.

Local law enforcement as well as the State’s Attorney's Office investigated the allegations against McDowell last year and did not bring charges.  

A subsequent complaint was filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics for the incident, but that complaint was dismissed. 

In case you missed it: Ethics commission dismisses complaint against North Port Mayor

Lirot hinted that, as part of his pursuit of the civil case, he would try and spark a new criminal inquiry. 

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