By Mary Thurwachter
After an hourlong discussion with robust input from residents, the Lantana Town Council unanimously agreed on April 12 to reimburse former Mayor Dave Stewart for legal expenses he incurred defending an ethics charge.
The charge stemmed from a sexual harassment allegation made by Catherine Phillips Padilla, who accused the former mayor of asking for sex in exchange for his approving speed bumps on her street six years ago. Stewart was exonerated by the Florida Commission on Ethics in 2019.
Stewart’s legal expenses included $41,699 for attorney’s costs and $5,302 for private investigation charges, for a total of about $47,000.
Finance director Stephen Kaplan said attorneys from the town’s insurance pool (Public Risk Management) said that Stewart’s court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees are to be reimbursed under Section 111.07 of the state law. Investigative fees, on the other hand, are at the council’s choice.
Most residents who spoke on the matter favored paying Stewart for both attorney and investigative costs.
“I do believe the investigative fees are a part of the lawsuit,” said Hypoluxo Island resident Media Beverly. “The attorney’s fees and the costs should be reimbursed. The investigative fees are clearly part of that. And, because Mr. Stewart as mayor was exonerated during the ethics proceedings, I believe there should be full reimbursement for both.”
Another island resident, retired lawyer Erica Wold, agreed. “There’s clearly precedent for this. And basically, legal representation is very impossible without incurring the costs of an investigation. You have to put this in perspective. Stewart was mayor for over 20 years. He took us from debt to $9 million in reserves. He had an average salary of $500 a month, which for over 20 years, is about $6,000 a year. That’s about $120,000.
“Now he just incurred $47,000 in connection with being a mayor. Over 20 years and this complaint comes and he was clearly cleared of it. Frankly, common decency dictates that you reimburse him.”
Chamber of Commerce President Dave Arm said the private investigator was needed and should be paid by the town.
“This all happened because Dave Stewart was mayor and somebody decided they didn’t want him to be mayor anymore,” Arm said. “It could happen to any one of you. And as people have said, you’ve got to make sure that the town has his back. He did a great job.”
Hypoluxo Island resident Bob Fritts said that failure to approve the legal expenses would discourage people from running for political office. “If the town doesn’t have your back when you’re exonerated, who is going to want to take the chance again?” Fritts asked council members. “In today’s political environment, this could be one of you six months from now.”
Two residents asked that the council delay action on paying the expenses because they wanted more detailed explanation of the attorney fees.
Jennifer Wink, who said she represented the residents of James Place at 1206 S. Lake Drive, wanted more transparency in the attorney fees. “They would like to know if it could be tabled and they can do more research, because while this may have been going on for a long time, many people were unaware that this was an option.”
But the Town Council said it was ready to act and followed the advice of Town Attorney Max Lohman.
“But for former Mayor Stewart’s position as being mayor, such a complaint could not have been levied against him and the costs were necessary and incurred in the course of the defense of the matter,” Lohman said. “For that reason, I offered you the opinion that, while I believe it is still up to your discretion, I encourage you to reimburse the costs.
“I believe there is very solid case law that supports the claim for reimbursement of those fees. It would seem manifestly unjust to require the mayor to litigate the town to recoup fees that he only incurred because he was the mayor. The investigative costs were part of that.”
As to what Wink referred to as “a vagueness” in attorney fee charges provided in the agenda packet, Lohman said that a detailed synopsis under the circumstances would be voluminous.
“When you have a case that goes on this long, the bills end up being quite detailed and long and so he did a synopsis,” Lohman said of Stewart’s attorney. “Knowing it was going to be submitted for an agenda item, I suspect that one of the reasons the attorney just did the synopsis was not only to keep the amount of paperwork brief, but also when you do billing and you are representing a private client, those bills are attorney-client privilege due to the content of the bills. It is not uncommon for an attorney to redact portions of the bills quite extensively.”
Lohman added: “For the amount of time this case went on and the amount of hourly rate that was being charged, $40,000 is not a lot of money.”
By Mary Thurwachter