MANATEE -- Manatee County school board vice chairwoman Julie Aranibar joined two other school board members in casting her vote last month to hire the Bradenton law firm Dye, Deitrich, Petruff and St. Paul as the school board's new legal representation.
But Aranibar's vote may present a conflict of interest. She hired James Dye to defend her last fall in an investigation in which she and school board chairwoman Karen Carpenter were accused of violating the Freedom of Information Act after they did not produce text messages they received at the Sept. 10 board meeting.
The state attorney's office declined to file criminal charges against either of them and nothing resulted from the case. But Aranibar still owes Dye for defending her. During the investigation, which is now closed, she accrued about $20,000 in legal fees.
She has set up a payment plan to repay the firm what she owes.
Aranibar said that she voted for the firm even though she owed them money because the case was completed, She doesn't believe she had a conflict in voting for the firm and she felt they were the most qualified.
Dye lawyer "Patti Petruff ran for school board, and they represented Just for Girls," Aranibar said. "Charter schools are one of the biggest things we will be investing time in."
Kerrie Stillman, spokesperson for the Florida Commissions on Ethics, said that under certain circumstances Aranibar would have had to remove herself from the vote.
"Generally, an official is prohibited if the measure will bring special private gain or loss to the official, family or somebody's client, employer or sister company," Stillman said. "Then they have to abstain and file a form within 15 days. It depends on who the benefit or loss is going to and if they fit in one of those categories."
Just-retired school board attorney John Bowen, who was the attorney at the time of the civil complaint filed against Aranibar and when the board voted for the new school board attorney, also said that Aranibar did not have to abstain from the vote.
"As long as the fee is not waived in consideration of the vote, then she had a professional relationship with the attorney firm," Bowen said. "It would have been a conflict if they said that she didn't need to pay."
Dye said that only Aranibar as a client can talk about the specific public records case.
"That has never come up, and I could not comment on advice I gave the client," Dye said.
Despite initially demanding that her legal fees be reimbursed by the school district, Aranibar said she set up the payment plan with the firm months ago.
"It is typically processed through the district, but Bowen refused," Aranibar said.
Aranibar said back in March that it is a policy of the department to reimburse such fees. But a second opinion from Tampa attorney Tom Gonzalez said Aranibar should not be reimbursed.
Bowen said he suggested disposing of the issue before the new attorney came on, and then suggested getting Gonzalez's opinion.
Gonzalez gave his written opinion to superintendent Rick Mills.
"Because no charge or suit has been filed against any Board member as a result of the investigation for which they obtained legal representation, they cannot be reimbursed for their legal expenses under Board policy," Gonzalez said in his letter.
"In my opinion, the Board is not obligated by law or policy to reimburse the members for the attorney's fees they have incurred and/or paid," the letter continued. "It is also my opinion that the Board may not reimburse members for fees incurred under the facts of this case."
Both Bowen and Gonzalez said that for Aranibar to be reimbursed, the school board would have to vote that the failure to show the requested text messages benefited the public. However, Bowen said this is a stretch, and it never came up as an agenda item for future board meetings. Aranibar also cannot be reimbursed because there were no charges pressed nor was she sued, he noted.
"It is hard to conceive any public purpose that would be served by failing to produce a public record requested from a citizen, but that is not my decision to make," Bowen said.
Carpenter maintains she did not see that she received the requested text in question and never responded to it. Aranibar said she could not produce the messages because of a virus on her phone.
The text was a request from school board candidate Robert Moates to make a comment on an agenda item at that board meeting.
Gonzalez would not give any additional comments outside of his letter.
"I give opinions to clients, but I do not do interviews in terms of legal matters," Gonzalez said Wednesday.
Aranibar said she disagrees with the assessment and stated that Bowen had no right to open the investigation.
"He violated our own policy," Aranibar said. "Bowen was acting on no authority from the board or action taken at a board meeting. Mr. Bowen's job was to update policies and procedures, which he didn't do, and he cost us millions in legal fees we shouldn't have had to pay. He took a lot of liberties."
Bowen defended his decision.
"I said there was a possibility of getting reimbursed, but she was maintaining she had an absolute right," Bowen said. "And that has never been the case. I never told her that she would be."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081