Total reimbursable expenses were $20,066.96
The former federal prosecutor who championed Newtown residents’ redistricting lawsuit against Sarasota County has paid the total amount of court costs that the County Commission authorized the Office of the County Attorney (OCA) to pursue after the county won the case.
Therefore, on May 27, the federal judge who presided over the litigation — William F. Jung of the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa — directed the court clerk “to close the case.”
The docket noted the “settlement of costs” and the appearance “that no further action need be taken by the Court …”
Just before Jung issued the directive, Andy Bardos of the GrayRobinson law firm in Tallahassee, who was lead outside counsel for the county, filed a Joint Notice of Settlement of Sarasota County’s Claim for Taxable Costs. “The parties respectfully submit this notice to inform the Court that they have amicably resolved Sarasota County’s claim for taxable costs,” Bardos wrote. “Sarasota County will not file a bill of costs. The parties consider [this case] to be resolved,” Bardos added.
On May 20 — the same day the County Commission gave its unanimous direction to County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht — Hugh Culverhouse of Coral Gables emailed the board members to make his offer of payment.
“You spoke succinctly today on your stance that the plaintiff should pay the costs of the county,” Culverhouse wrote. “While I do not have the details of the costs, I trust implicitly Andy Bardos, and will not ask for details before I pay. With the virus and need for our county to open and rebuild, this case needs to be finished. Please send me the cost, the party to make the check payable, address to fedex the check. Thank you.”
Early in the morning of May 21, The Sarasota News Leader learned through a public records request, Commissioner Charles Hines emailed Culverhouse, thanking him for his offer. The News Leader found no other communication between a commissioner and Culverhouse in the materials the county’s Public Records Division staff provided.
Culverhouse took the opportunity that same morning to write Hines: “Thank you for this response.”
Hines joined Commissioner Christian Ziegler in voting against the new district lines following the Nov. 19, 2019 public hearing. Ziegler consistently had called for holding off on redistricting until after the 2020 Census data was available. Hines indicated that his vote was based both on the shift of Newtown from District 1 to District 2 — which would make it impossible for the residents of that community to vote for a commissioner this year — and the fact that the map that served as the basis for the version the board majority approved initially was submitted under a false name.
Because of the November 2018 passage of the Single-Member Districts county Charter amendment, only citizens who live in the same district as candidates for that district’s commission seat may vote for those candidates. The seats for Districts 1, 3 and 5 are the only ones open this year.
On May 4, Judge Jung ruled that he could find no evidence to support the plaintiffs’ claim that the redrawing of the County Commission district lines in 2019 was predominantly an issue of racial discrimination. The three lead plaintiffs in the class action suit were residents of Newtown, the traditionally African American community in North Sarasota.
Culverhouse also assembled the legal team that represented the plaintiffs. Their lawsuit against the county was filed on Dec. 12, 2019.
Wrapping up the details
County Attorney Elbrecht had explained to the commissioners in a May 13 memorandum that it has been the practice of the OCA “to seek to recover litigation costs from Plaintiffs when the County is the prevailing party in a lawsuit, and we have successfully recovered costs in several cases.”
The total amount Culverhouse paid was $20,066.96, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told the News Leader after it requested the figure.
In response to a second News Leader question, Winchester added in his June 3 email that the total amount the county has paid to GrayRobinson to-date for its legal services in the case is $355,303.82.
In reviewing a series of emails among attorney Bardos and OCA staff, the News Leader found that Bardos wrote Elbrecht late in the afternoon of May 20, asking whether the OCA had incurred any reimbursable costs other than those GrayRobinson had documented. “If not,” Bardos added, he would send Culverhouse a copy of “what we have prepared.”
A couple of minutes later, Assistant County Attorney David M. Pearce responded, telling Bardos that he would ask a member of the OCA staff “to run a check” to ensure that the county did not have other costs that needed to be added to Bardos’ total.
Then Pearce corresponded again with Bardos late on the morning of May 21. “We don’t have any additional costs over here,” Pearce wrote. “Payment should be made to Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners.”
Finally, shortly before 7 p.m. on May 22, Bardos contacted Pearce to notify him that Culverhouse “said he would instruct his office in Sarasota to issue the check today.”
Culverhouse also is the developer of Palmer Ranch.