Business owner Jim Barge is suing several individuals and companies alleging he was falsely accused of stealing a campaign sign in 2014 from a Safety Harbor yard. Barge was caught on tape removing a sign for former Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub.
The lawsuit names both Ayoub’s then challenger, Andy Steingold, as well as WTSP investigative reporter Mike Deeson and accuses the two of scheming with Ray Duke, the man who took the video in question, to create a “false story” painting Barge as a sign thief.
The video, taken four days before the March 11, 2014, election shows Barge removing the Steingold sign, but leaving another sign promoting Ayoub untouched. Barge supported Ayoub’s mayoral campaign.
After Duke had shared the video with Steingold, the now-mayor asked the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the theft. Steingold also released the video to Deeson, who aired it as part of a 10 News Investigates piece the evening before the election.
Steingold went on to defeat Ayoub in that race.
In his lawsuit, Barge, CEO of Intellect Technical Solutions in Clearwater, claims the video and news report damaged his reputation. He is seeking damages.
Deeson is a veteran journalist who has won 11 Emmy Awards and a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Filed March 4, about two years after the incident occurred, the lawsuit claims the sign was removed from private property with permission of the owner. Barge said the Steingold sign he removed had been placed in his then neighbors’ yard without permission. Owners Samuel and Lisa Brachna, he said, gave the authorization to remove the sign and to leave the Ayoub sign untouched.
Barge claims both Deeson and the police failed to question the Brachnas before airing the 10 News report. He also claims Deeson refused to correct or retract the story even after speaking with the Brachnas.
The investigation occurred after the Steingold campaign complained that numerous campaign signs had been stolen. It’s unclear whether the incident described in this case has anything to do with the other alleged sign thefts, but explains why the singular issue would have been news-worthy at the time.
Barge also claims in his lawsuit that the camera used to videotape the alleged theft was placed in the Brachnas’ bushes without their permission. He said the Deeson report on WTSP was aired under the false impression that the sign was removed from a public right-of-way, when it was instead removed from private property.
It’s not immediately clear whether the signs were located on an easement of private property.
Barge also claims Deeson and Steingold are “personal friends” in his lawsuit.
Barge also names Shelley Shellenberg, of the Facebook group “Saving Safety Harbor,” in the lawsuit, because she referenced the WTSP report in a post. He writes that she called him names like, “rude, ill-bred, thuggish, and boorish.” However, it’s likely Barge’s claims against her would have First Amendment protection.