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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Four lawsuits filed against Bradenton Beach officials

With claims along the lines of "abusive behavior" and "damaged reputations," four lawsuits have been filed in circuit court against various elected and appointed officials in Bradenton Beach.

"You have cleaned house and run off employees," attorney David Wilcox told the city commission as he had four lawsuits served against Vice Mayor Anna O'Brien and City Commissioner Lisa Marie Phillips at the start of the past Thursday's city commission meeting. Board of Adjustment Chair Ken Lohn was also named in one of the suits.

Wilcox added that he would forward the information within the legal matter to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the attorney general's office, and said that other legal action could follow.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of former Building Official Bob Welch, former Code Enforcement Officer Dawn Betts, developer David Teitelbaum and Ronald Ockerman, a citizen who was involved with an altercation with Phillips Jan. 3.

In the Welch versus O'Brien matter, he claims defamation in his complaint. The suit claims, in part, that "prior to and since being elected, she has made negative comments and allegations of wrongdoing by Welch in his capacity of [building official and] ... has been engaged in a pattern of harassment of Welch and his subordinates" ... and "has had a vendetta against Welch. O'Brien's goal has been to get rid of Welch and other city employees."

The lawsuit continues that during a special emergency city commission meeting Feb. 20, O'Brien "accused Welch of being 'associated professionally with other entities while on the city payroll.' O'Brien leveled accusations of problems with Welch's work, professional competence, integrity and veracity. O'Brien's allegations are untrue, hurtful and scandalous. O'Brien knew that her remarks were untrue and she made them with such willful and wanton disregard for Welch that they were malicious" and "were intended to subject Welch to hatred, distrust, ridicule, contempt or disgrace."

Welch asked for damages in excess of $15,000 and requested a jury trial.

"There is so much mudslinging going on," Welch said at the meeting, "that you all should be dressed in brown. You should resign your positions, and I'm asking the citizens for your recall."

In the Betts versus O'Brien, Phillips and Lohn lawsuit, the Feb. 20 meeting was again cited, in which O'Brien accused her and Teitelbaum of "'inappropriate behavior in front of citizens, and she has been seen on the porch with Teitelbaum being very intimate and there is an atmosphere of intimacy and she needs to watch what the hell she's doing in public."

The suit continues that "O'Brien stated or implied that Betts was being paid or employed by Teitelbaum while she was still working for the city, the implication being that she was engaged in improper, illegal or unethical behavior. O'Brien's statements were intended to subject Betts to hatred, distrust, ridicule, contempt or disgrace. O'Brien's statements impugned Betts' professional integrity and materially damaged her professional reputation."

Regarding Phillips, Betts' suit states that "Phillips accused Betts of selectively enforcing the city codes, not doing her job and stated that unless something were done to prevent such, Betts would take improper actions in her official capacity 'on the way out the door.' Phillips either knew that her remarks were untrue or she made them with such willful and wanton disregard for Betts that they were malicious."

Regarding Lohn, Betts' suit claims defamation. Again citing the Feb. 20 meeting, in which Lohn claimed "there's corruption involved here," the suit states that "Lohn spoke up from the audience during the meeting and stated that there was 'corruption involved' and that he could 'testify to corruption in the matter under discussion' which were matters exclusively concerning Betts. The accusation was clearly that Betts was guilty of corruption. Lohn's allegations are untrue, hurtful and scandalous."

A jury trial was requested in the suit.

In the Teitelbaum versus O'Brien suit, the developer of the city's Old Bridge Village condominium project states that "O'Brien has opposed any development or redevelopment of real estate in Bradenton Beach for a number of years. She has made negative comments and allegations of wrongdoing by Teitelbaum throughout the development process, both as a private citizen and after she became elected to public office. O'Brien has been engaged in a consistent pattern of harassment of Teitelbaum, his workers, visitors and customers since the project started.

"O'Brien, without permission or invitation, appears on or about the Old Bridge Village site on almost a daily basis, whereupon she takes photographs, uses abusive and foul language to workers and customers, and has called the city police again and again making unfounded complaints to them."

Teitelbaum's suit again references the Feb. 20 meeting in statements involving he and Betts.

He also said in his lawsuit that "O'Brien has committed various and sundry actions which constitute a violation of certain rights of Teitelbaum which are secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States. O'Brien harassed and threatened customers of Teitelbaum who are visiting the property by yelling at them, swearing at them, and generally being abusive to them resulting in driving them off and preventing them from purchasing the property, all to the significant and material detriment of Teitelbaum.

"O'Brien has harassed and interfered with Teitelbaum's business by exerting her influences as vice mayor and city commissioner on city employees such as the building official, the code enforcement officer and the police department in attempts to have them use their official position against Teitelbaum. All of O'Brien's actions were designed to deprive Teitelbaum of the possession, enjoyment and use of his property in contravention to the United States Constitution.

"Teitelbaum has been damaged by having customers intimidated and verbally abused by O'Brien, resulting in their loss of interest in purchasing a unit in the project which is a lost sale of units marketed at $1 million and the costs of carrying the units for an extended period due to O'Brien."

He is asking for damages in excess of $15,000, and a jury trial.

"I'm dismayed to see how much damage you commissioners have accomplished since taking office," Teitelbaum told commissioners last week. "Your plan to 'clean house' at city hall has been implemented in less than four months. You have decimated the city government by firing the city's lawyer, planner, building official, two members of the planning and zoning board and now the code enforcement officer. You have damaged reputations of professional people without compunction.

"A profound message will be delivered shortly, and there are other strong messages to follow," he continued. "Your personal activities, and how city hall will operate in the future, is about to change."

In the Ockerman versus Phillips lawsuit, he states he and his wife were driving on 22nd Street and as he slowed, "Phillips pulled up behind him and blew her horn and started gesturing at him. It appeared to Ockerman that Phillips 'flipped him off,' so he returned the favor."

After they both exited their vehicles, Ockerman's suit states that "Phillips was hysterically yelling and gesturing at Ockerman and made him concerned for his safety and the safety of his wife, who was sitting in the car."

When Ockerman said he was going to call the police, Phillips said "'Go ahead. Call the police. I am a city commissioner and I run the police, and I run the chief."

Ockerman is asking for damages in excess of $15,000, and an injunction against Phillips.