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Court to those who file false ethics complaints: Pay up!

The First District Court of Appeal this week ordered the Florida Commission on Ethics to force two political opponents of Santa Rosa Property Appraiser Greg Brown to pay the costs and attorney fees incurred by Brown in defending himself against two ethics complaints.

The Ethics Commission had concluded that the complaints filed by Robert Burgess and Hilton Kelly had no merit and called them "shameful" and politically motivated. But they turned down a request from Brown to force the two to pay roughly $40,000 in attorney fees and other costs, despite a recommendation from an administrative law judge that sided with Brown.

But the ruling written by Judge Phil Padavano said that the Ethics Commission was wrong because commissioners believed they needed to show "actual malice" by Burgess and Kelly, in accordance to the standards set down by the U.S. Supreme Court in libel cases. Padavano said the Legislature did not include "actual malice" in the statute that allows someone to recover attorney fees and he noted that Burgess and Kelly did not make their statements in a press conference, but instead filed a complaint against him.

"The First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of expression, but it would be a far cry to extrapolate from this proposition that the First Amendment also guarantees a right to initiate a legal proceeding based on false allegations,'' wrote Padavano in an opinion approved by a three-judge panel, including Clay Roberts, the former elections division head appointed to the court by Gov. Charlie Crist.