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After hearing from a hired outside attorney and the county's insurance carrier as to whether the local government is obligated to pay Clerk of Court Kirk Reams' legal fees, the Jefferson County Commission has decided to let the matter go to litigation.
The issue resurfaced at the commission meeting on Thursday evening, March 21, when County Coordinator Parrish Barwick presented Brown & Brown Liability Coverage's response to the board's question of whether the county's insurance policy covered Reams' legal fees.
The insurance company, Barwick said, had declined the request.
That's when Commissioner Stephen Walker spoke up. Walker told his colleagues that he had been in communications with representatives of the insurance company and had been advised by them to let the matter proceed to litigation.
“They basically suggested that we get involved in a lawsuit and let them handle it that way,” Walker said. “They said if we get involved in a lawsuit, we can turn it over to them and they will run it up the flagpole and see where it falls out at that point. They basically suggested that we don't do much discussion of it in the board.”
The only board member to comment on the matter was Chairwoman Betsy Barfield.
“Well, there you go,” she said in response to Walker's suggestion.
And that was the totality of the discussion, which lasted no more than five minutes.
David Collins, Ream's attorney, is asking the county to pay his firm $114,163 in legal fees for his representation of the Clerk of Court during the latter's criminal and civil cases last year. Collins has warned that the longer the fees go unpaid, the higher the final tally, as he will be charging interest on the amount.
His argument is that Reams is warranted the county paying the fees because it was within the bounds of his office to defend himself and he furthermore had been exonerated of the charge and been reinstated. Had he not been exonerated or reinstated it would have been a different matter, Collins has said.
The commission has received no assistance on the matter from its two attorneys – Buck Bird and Scott Shirley. The two have adopted a hands-off approach to the issue, claiming they are conflicted because of their relationship with Reams and the board. As a consequence, the commission had to seek outside counsel for advice.
On March 7, after reviewing case and statutory law, Attorney Gwendolyn Adkins, of Coppins Monroe PA, told the board that it was her opinion that Reams was entitled to reasonable reimbursement from the county for his legal costs.
The courts and the law, Adkins said, did not take into account an official's conduct or its wisdom, but rather “whether the action was taken within official duties and serving a public purpose.”
As to the specific amount of the fees, however, Adkins declined to comment, saying that this aspect of the matter had not been within the parameters of her review.
It was Walker who then suggested that the board submit the matter to the county's insurance carrier for a determination if the policy covered the cost.
Reams was suspended from office in October 2017 after being charged with petit theft for allowing his former girlfriend to use a county-owned laptop for her personal use for almost a year without authorization. In January 2018, based on Collins' defense, a local jury exonerated Reams of the charge. Still, the Governor and Florida Senate refused to hold a hearing on his suspension or reinstate him.
In frustration, Reams sued the Governor and Senate in federal court, arguing that they were denying him due process, a case that Collins also litigated. The federal court found in Reams' favor, and in December 2018, then Governor Rick Scott signed an order reinstating him to office.