On the same day general contractor John Agnelli confronted Holmes Beach Commissioner Jean Peelen at a city meeting about statements she’d made in a recent newsletter, he filed a libel suit in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court. He named Peelen as the defendant.
At the Oct. 9 city commission meeting, attended by more than 50 people, Agnelli also called for Peelen’s resignation or removal from office.
Peelen admitted her errors and apologized for her misstatements in the newsletter, which was distributed through email.
Agnelli criticized Peelen for a “careless lack of regard for the truth” and a campaign against him, others and the building department. He called for her “immediate resignation” or removal from office.
Peelen had no comment about the lawsuit or Agnelli’s demands.
According to the city clerk’s office, no recall petition had been filed as of Oct. 12, although rumors circulated about a second court action by Agnelli that includes a demand for public records — emails and phone logs — from Peelen.
According to Agnelli’s lawsuit, Peelen’s statements in her Sept. 30 email were “nothing less than vicious and directed at harming John Agnelli’s good reputation in Holmes Beach and surrounding area community.”
It also claims damages of more than $15,000.
The complaint as well as Agnelli’s remarks to city commissioners, point to three false statements in a sentence in Peelen’s newsletter: “[Mr.] Agnelli who is a business associate of Shawn Kaleta and who has been cited for construction deficiencies and/or has been before the code board more than once, gave $500 to each incumbent.”
In another email, to the same recipients of the Sept. 30 newsletter, and in a response after the Oct. 9 meeting, Peelen wrote, “John Agnelli gave the contributions. That is correct, but the rest is not. It is not John, but his son Frank, who has had issues with the building department and has been before the code board.”
At the meeting she said, “As soon as I had discovered that I’d confused Mr. Agnelli with his son, that I had the wrong name — the right thing, but wrong name — I sent out immediately a correction that it was not a good thing, that it held him up to public criticism.”
She continued, “And that I was so sorry I made the mistake, and that shouldn’t have happened. I shouldn’t have been careless.”
Peelen also said she had left two phone messages at John Agnelli’s office “to personally apologize for the mistake I made.”
Agnelli’s lawsuit contends the email constitutes “libel per se,” in which the law presumes an injury, because the alleged defamatory statements “concerned his qualities and skills as a general contractor.”
“The truth is I am a fiercely independent businessman,” Agnelli said, adding he’s not associated with Kaleta or any others.
“The truth is I’ve never been cited for any construction deficiencies in the 41 years as a general contractor.”
To the contrary, he said, Agnelli-built homes exceed local code requirements.
Another untruth, he added, is that he’s never been summoned before the code board.
He said he agreed with one of Peelen’s statements — that he had contributed to the incumbents’ campaigns.
“I have the right to do so without fear and intimidation,” Agnelli said.
After the meeting, Johnston said Agnelli’s lawsuit, which does not name the city as a defendant, has been sent to the Florida League of Cities claims department to handle.
Peelen said she has a private attorney in the event the city does not represent her interest in the lawsuit.