06-10-2012, 10:36 PM #1
Federal Investigation In Walton County ?
Federal investigation is latest question in Walton lawsuits
June 10, 2012 8:58 PM
TOM McLAUGHLIN / Daily News
Attorneys for Walton County activist Suzanne Harris are trying to prevent their client from having to testify about discussions they say she’s had with federal agents.
To do so, they’ve stated in a court motion that the FBI has recorded conversations “between Harris and elected and other Walton County officials.”
“These conversations recorded by the FBI corroborate the allegations contained in pleadings she has filed in this matter,” the motion states.
The document, filed last week, names FBI agent James Van Pelt and Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Hensel as those Harris contends she has spoken to.
But lawyers for people Harris has sued say before she can refuse to testify, there ought to be some proof that the discussions Harris said she had actually occurred.
The only way to get that proof, according to Gary Shipman, a lawyer representing Walton County businessman Lloyd Blue, is to have a representative of the U.S. Attorney’s Office show up in court and confirm Harris’ contention.
“If no U.S. attorney is present to assert privilege, I’m going to have to assert in court that Ms. Harris’ statement is fabricated,” he said.
Len Register, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pensacola, could neither confirm nor deny Friday whether an investigation is under way.
He also said it was unlikely a representative of the federal government will appear at a hearing Friday to weigh in on either Harris’ or Blue’s side of the matter.
Hints that the FBI might be investigating something in Walton County have been rampant, and recent statements — both in and out of court — by attorneys on both sides of the handful of lawsuits Harris has filed have only fueled the rumor mill.
A judge ruled Friday that County Commissioner Scott Brannon and Walton Tourist Development Council Executive Director Dawn Moliterno did not have to sit for depositions in another legal action brought by Harris.
County attorneys had said it was “not appropriate” for Brannon and Moliterno to provide sworn testimony amid “allegations” of a federal lawsuit.
To date, the most compelling indications of a federal investigation have come in Harris’ latest motion, filed by attorney Larry Keefe.
Ironically, the motion was made in an action brought by Blue, who is no longer a defendant in a broader lawsuit brought by Harris.
The dispute over privileged testimony arose as the two sides debated whether Harris should pay Blue’s attorney fees for suing him in the first place.
“It’s simply a hearing about the awarding of attorney’s fees,” Shipman said.
The larger suit alleges law violations that occurred during a transaction involving Blue’s company, 331 Bayside, and land at Chat Holley Road sold to the county.
Harris’ attorneys, Keefe and Matt Gaetz, state in their motion that their client has been given permission by federal authorities to name the government agents who interviewed her and disclose “the FBI made and possessed recordings” that corroborate allegations in her lawsuit.
It states Harris cannot, on cross-examination, “give full and complete testimony regarding her conversations and operational activities.”
Were that testimony ordered, it states “the sources and methods used by the FBI to investigate corruption in Walton County will be forever tainted.”
Keefe and Gaetz would prefer that the circuit judge hearing the case, Howard LaPorte, simply secure confirmation from federal authorities that what is stated in Harris’ motion is true.
Shipman’s counter motion claims Harris’ attorneys need to stay on point and not ask the court hearing the motion for attorneys’ fees to “consider evidence from either party which is not part of the existing record.”
It states Blue, through his attorneys, has not sought to obtain information about a federal investigation, and accuses Harris’ team of trying to present hearsay testimony “to repeat the allegations” made against Blue’s company.
It also states Harris’ attorneys are trying to repeat allegations and then not allow cross-examination of their client.
The motion further claims Harris is requesting a privilege “belonging to the government … to avoid cross-examination.”
Shipman questioned what FBI agents might even be investigating at the county level.
Register, speaking generically, said the FBI does get involved in investigations of public corruption, and that use of channels of interstate commerce such as telephone lines or the Internet fall under federal authority.
“The FBI is the primary go-to agency for anything that smacks of public corruption,” he said.
The dispute between Harris and Blue has spilled over onto the two law firms representing them.
Keefe actually took comments he alleges Shipman made during a telephone conversation to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office.
He alleges Shipman committed extortion and outlines the basis for his charges in the motion he filed for Harris.
“Shipman demanded, multiple times, that attorney Keefe disclose confidential, privileged and highly sensitive information regarding Attorney Keefe’s communications with Harris regarding the FBI’s ongoing investigation in Walton County,” the motion states.
It alleges Shipman also threatened Keefe with a Florida Bar grievance and threatened to jeopardize the renewal of Keefe’s law license.
Shipman counters in his motion for Blue. He claims he warned Keefe “he had a duty not to represent anything to the court that he knew to be false.”
He accuses Keefe of “false allegations against counsel for 331 Properties.”
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