Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder denied key allegations in a lawsuit accusing him of intimidation and improper communication of public information, according to documents filed in Hillsborough County Court.
The suit was filed Oct. 11 by Stephen Michelini, a Tampa-based development consultant. In the filing, Michelini accused Dingfilder of using his wife’s email account to conduct public business and of intimidating Michelini when he made a public request for those emails.
Michelini filed an amended complaint against Dingfelder on Oct. 19. The Council member responded Nov. 3 denying most of the allegations.
Dingfelder would not, however elaborate.
“I stand by whatever is in there,” Dingfelder said. “Whatever we filed in court.”
Dingfelder also said he was shocked and surprised by the allegations. He said he and Michelini raised their children in the same neighborhood and were always friendly.
According to his website, Michelini is a development consultant specializing in helping clients navigate government relations, permitting, land use and zoning issues.
Last month, Dingfelder told the Tampa Bay Business Journal he thinks the suit is about his aversion to development in South Tampa. Dingfelder has a history of skepticism when it comes to continued development in areas Michelini is hoping to develop.
“This is all about me standing up for the neighborhoods,” he told TBBJ. “And the development community, including Stephen Michelini, don’t like it. They’re going to use this to intimidate me, and it won’t work.”
The suit is based on a proposed housing development at 4465 and 4467 West Gandy Boulevard. In August, lawyer Ethan Loeb made a public records request through the city of Tampa for emails relating to the project, including those involving Dingfelder’s wife.
One message was found in which Dingfelder forwarded his wife an email from a constituent. The only thing Dingfelder added was a smiley face emoji. He said he was sharing the email with his wife to show constituents praising him for his work.
Loeb, represents Michelini in the lawsuit against Dingfelder. During a City Council meeting in September, Dingfelder asked Michelini about the public records request. According to Loeb, that was taken as intimidation.
Dingfelder apologized in a letter, but Michelini and Loeb increased the scope of their request. The suit accuses Dingfelder of intimidation, dragging his feet on the records request and of speaking about the project during a news interview before City Council voted on it. They’ve also requested emails with the smiley face emoji and want forensic reviews of Dingfelder’s emails and storage devices used by him and his wife.
In the response filed Nov. 3, Dingfelder and his counsel offer a line-by-line assessment of Michelini’s accusations. Dingfelder denies accusations that his news interview was improper. He acknowledges sending his wife emails but not in an unlawful way. He admits to not fulfilling the complete request but says he is making “good faith” efforts to obtain the material. He also denies categorizing his encounter with Michelini as intimidation. He calls it a conversation and denies that his apology was an admission of guilt.
Dingfelder is scheduled to be deposed in the case later this month.