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Safety Harbor attorney sues Citrus County Chronicle for libel

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The Citrus County Chronicle is being sued for libel based on a series of reports involving the County Road 491 widening project. Safety Harbor attorney Fred Busack alleges reporter Mike Wright misrepresented how much money he was earning from the project on numerous occasions.

Busack’s filing claims he suffered “past and future compensatory damages” including “injury to reputation, shame, humiliation, mental anguish, hurt feelings, lost earnings, lost working time and lost earning capacity.”

Busack is seeking punitive damages, the exact amount of which is not known.

Busack’s lawsuit, headed up by attorney Joel Ewusiak, lays out a number of instances in which the Chronicle inaccurately reported Busack’s earnings.

On February 26, 2013, Wright reported, “…Adams, who made a similar attempt two weeks ago to fire County Administrator Brad Thorpe with the same result, said the county contracts with too many outside attorneys, particularly the $307,000 paid so far to Tampa attorney Fred Busack for the County Road 491 widening project.”

Busack and his lawyer say that figure is not true.

“Wright knew or should have known that the reported payment was false, as even a minor investigation into the payments made to the Pennington law firm would have shown that Busack was paid significantly less for his role on the Project,” the suit says. “Moreover, the county never issued a payment directly to Busack individually throughout the entire time that he worked on the project.”

Similar arguments are laid out for reports on August 27, 2014, November 15, 2014 and November 29, 2014.

On August 27, Wright reported $1.6 million was paid to Busack for his roll in the C.R. 491 widening project. On November 15 and 29, reports said Busack had received $2.2 million

Payments received by Busack for his work on the project were less than what the Chronicle reported and were never paid directly to him.

At the time of this project, Busack worked for a law firm based in Tampa and Tallahassee called Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar. Busack no longer works for that firm and instead now runs his own private law firm in Safety Harbor where he and his wife own a home.

The lawsuit alleges that “in reliance on the foregoing false and defamatory statements of fact” the Citrus County Board of County Commissioners instructed Busack to “severely curtail all legal work on the Project and on Jan. 6, 2015, instructed Busack to cease all legal work on the Project.”

In preparation of a lawsuit, Busack’s lawyer sent a letter to the Chronicle informing them of Busack’s intent to sue. In that letter, Busack’s attorney listed five incidents where his client’s income for work on the project was reported higher than it actually was.

The letter asked that those references be retracted.

Instead, the paper issued a “clarification” correcting the $307,000 reported payment to reflect what Busack actually billed, which was $218,779. They did the same with the report claiming Busack was paid $1.6 million by clarifying he only billed for $704,479.

They also corrected the report stating Busack had been paid $2.2 million to reflect his actual billed payment of $877,954.

The total difference between what the Chronicle originally reported Busack had been paid and what he had actually been paid is $2.3 million.

The lawsuit says the clarification “not only fails to address all of the alleged false and defamatory statements outlined in the notice, but also is factually misleading and defamatory in its own right.”

The lawsuit does not clarify what, if anything, is inaccurate in the clarification or why it is still “defamatory.”

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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