Pensacola, Florida
Sunday December 17th 2017

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The Legal Defense of Doug Underhill

By Duwayne Escobedo

Ask Escambia County Commission Chairman Doug Underhill how much money he plans to raise for his legal defense fund and you might get the same answer as Inweekly did.

“It’s none of your business,” Underhill snapped.

Asked a second time, Underhill said $50,000.

“That way ass clowns won’t sue again,” he said.

Why is Underhill asking his supporters for money to defend himself in court? Former commissioner Gene Valentino filed a libel lawsuit in July against Underhill and Ray Guillory.

Guillory, who was running as a Democrat for Valentino’s seat in 2014, published private messages from 2013 to 2014 between himself and Underhill on Facebook that alleged Valentino was involved in an extramarital affair. Underhill beat the incumbent Valentino in the 2014 GOP District 2 primary by 1,116 votes.

Guillory lost the Democratic primary to Deb Moore. Valentino supported Moore in the general election, but Underhill handily defeated the Democrat, 10,660-5,747.

A previous Valentino defamation lawsuit filed in 2015 against Underhill and Inweekly was dismissed with prejudice by a local judge. However, the court did not award the defendants their legal fees. Inweekly paid two-thirds of the legal fees of Clark Partington, since the lawsuit involved the newspaper and its reporter. According to county documents, Underhill owes the law firm $7,388.16.

After his fellow commissioners refused to pay for his legal defense, Underhill last month announced his intention to form a legal defense fund.

His announcement became the catalyst for former Commissioner Wilson Robertson to file an ethics complaint on Oct. 4 with the Florida Commission on Ethics against Underhill for creating the fund. Robertson served both District 5 and District 1 for 16 years before stepping down in 2016.

In his complaint, Robertson wrote: “Now he is setting up a legal defense fund to ask for donations (gifts) from the same constituents he is currently serving, and is also seeking campaign contributions from these same constituents. Is this ethical?”

This is not the first time Robertson has opposed Underhill. He supported Valentino in 2014 over Underhill. Last year, he endorsed Jeff Bergosh taking over his District 1 seat in the Republican primary against Karen Sindel, who had Underhill’s backing.

Robertson said Underhill should not be allowed to start a legal defense fund because both incidents happened before he took office. Plus, Robertson pointed out that Underhill makes more than $77,000 as an Escambia County Commissioner.

“He needs to step up and be a man and pay his own defense,” the 77-year-old Robertson said. “This ain’t about the county. These are total personal actions. It’s almost like extortion. It’s totally unethical to set up a fund.”

Robertson said he served with Valentino, but the two are not friends. Underhill made it clear what he thinks of both.

“You never play dirty games with a pig,” Underhill said. “They will drag you down into the mud. I will not bring myself to their level.”

The state authorizes local government agencies, such as Escambia County, to pay its elected officials legal bills, if they serve a public purpose. Board members pointed out at their Sept. 21 regular meeting that Underhill had not been elected to serve as commissioner at the time of the actions alleged in the lawsuits. They suggested the suits were both private matters and not public matters. The commissioners voted instead to direct County Attorney Alison Rogers to seek an Attorney General opinion specifically on the issue.

Rogers also called the Florida Ethics Commission, she said. The state agency said Underhill could create a legal defense fund but would have to follow the state rules on gifts to elected officials. That means anyone who does business with the county can give $100 maximum. Additionally, Underhill must report the gifts once a quarter to the state’s Division of Elections.

Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson IV said during the meeting that he supported Underhill’s request for money from the county to pay his legal expenses on the Valentino lawsuits.

“He didn’t have to say certain things about certain people but he chose to,” Robinson said. “I want to stay out of this thing. It makes good news. It’s a good read and good story. I just don’t know what it does for government.”

Underhill said Valentino and Robertson are working together to drive him out of office.

“Have we ever had a time when a commissioner was sued by a former commissioner and attacked by another?” he asked. “This is bullshit. (But) I’m winning this in the court of public opinion.”

He said he will have no trouble raising the money to pay legal fees. He added people who don’t think he can are smoking crack. Underhill reported he raised a $100,000 in 100 days in his 2016 campaign.

“I can raise money when the time comes,” he said.

Underhill also took offense to Robertson’s claim that he makes enough as a commissioner to pay his own legal expenses.

“If you work a blue-collar job, it sounds like a lot,” Underhill said. “But I make half of what I made in the private sector before becoming a commissioner.”

Elected officials in Florida have had problems with legal defense funds. In 2012, Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis got in trouble for accepting a $4,000 contribution from a lobbyist for his legal defense fund. He paid a $2,500 fine. Ten years earlier, Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty was fined $3,750 after she accepted more than $20,000 in cash from developers and businesses courting favor from the commission for a legal defense fund.

To avoid ethical issues, Underhill on Oct. 2 emailed a memo to his aide and intern that outlined six rules about how to handle calls to his District 2 office about the legal defense fund.  He also copied Escambia County administrators and local media.

Those include rules to not discuss the legal defense fund while on county property or time, writing, “This office is not a place for politics, it is a place for governance.” He insisted, “at all times your words should be accurate.”

He banned them from soliciting, collecting or handling donations to the fund. If someone calls his office, he directed his staff to give out his cellphone number and scripted what they should say to the caller. Underhill also scripted how they should respond, if someone calls his commission office to criticize him.

For his sixth and final rule, Underhill made more of a political statement for the media and his constituents than guidelines on how he expected his two staff members to act.

“The intent of those who are doing this is to distract and divert me from my efforts to reform this county,” he wrote. “I will not allow that to happen. Every moment you spend thinking of this matter is a moment that we are not working toward the goals of this office and the needs of our constituents.”

He closed with these words of encourage for his staff, “The coming months will require extreme mission focus and tactical patience. I cannot think of two better people to be running my office than the team I have today.”