By C.M. WALKER
HIGH SPRINGS – On May 7 of this year, the State of Florida Department of Legal Affairs (DLA) filed suit against former commissioner, Robert J. Barnas, in the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit, Leon County, Florida. Barnas was served a summons notifying him of the suit and providing him with notice that he had twenty calendar days in which to respond in writing to the court.
DLA filed the suit on behalf of Sharon L. Yeago, who had previously made a claim against Barnas in an effort to recover damages of nearly $47,000 in attorney's fees and expenses. This was the cost Yeago and her lawyers incurred defending her against charges they felt were unsubstantiated, but were still brought against her by former commissioner Bob Barnas.
Barnas originally filed his complaint against Yeago with the Florida Elections Commission (FEC) on April 1, 2013. Noting that Yeago was acting as spokesperson for Concerned Citizens for a Better High Springs (a.k.a., Concerned Citizens), he filed it against her personally. Barnas' complaint charged that the group was formed for the purpose of opposing a High Springs Charter amendment referendum and to support certain candidates running for commission seats in the Nov. 6, 2012 general election. The charges were made despite the fact that the group clearly identified itself as a non-political group when it was formed.
Barnas further alleged that such activity had violated various provisions of Chapter 106, Florida Statutes, since Concerned Citizens did not register as a political committee or appoint a treasurer, a registered agent, file reports of financial expenditures, and did not keep records.
The FEC summarily dismissed Barnas' original complaint against Yeago as being “legally insufficient” and, in July 2013, Yeago filed a counter petition against Barnas to attempt to recover attorney's fees and costs challenging Barnas' tactics in filing his original complaint against her. In Yeago's counter petition she argued that Barnas maliciously filed the complaint knowing that its allegations were false or that it was filed with reckless disregard for the truth.
Lengthy hearings were held in Tallahassee to consider Yeago's petition to be reimbursed for attorney's fees and expenses for the legally insufficient case brought by Barnas against her. Following those hearings, Administrative Law Judge Diane Cleavinger wrote a detailed 27-page Recommended Order (RO) in support of Yeago's claim against Barnas.
After receiving the RO ruling in Yeago's favor last year, Barnas submitted 55 pages of exceptions and challenges. FEC members reviewed all of Barnas' exceptions and objections in October and at yet another hearing in Tallahassee on Feb. 24, 2015. Following this extensive review, the FEC in a 5-0 vote substantially upheld the RO and rejected the bulk of Barnas' exceptions.
As Barnas has not complied and paid the amount approved by the Administrative Law Judge and the Florida Elections Commission, the Department of Legal Affairs is authorized by Florida Statutes to take on the task of forcing compliance with the Administrative Law Judge's order, a process that will increase the amount owed with additional court costs and attorney fees. Barnas has not yet filed an answer, but has asked the court to halt the action to enforce payment against him until his appeal of the FEC's order is over. That effort to stay the DLA's case is still awaiting judicial action. This case has been assigned to Judge George Reynolds in Tallahassee.
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