Miami-Dade County

Get this vice mayor angry and he might sue

Palmetto Bay Vice Mayor John Dubois
Palmetto Bay Vice Mayor John Dubois Village of Palmetto Bay

When a popular community blog wrote posts that criticized John Dubois, the vice mayor of Palmetto Bay, he sued.

When a village resident passed out fliers unfavorable to Dubois during the 2012 elections, he sued. When the county cited him for cutting down mangroves, he sued.

And when ethics investigators opined that Dubois committed ethical violations this year? Yep. He sued.

In the four years Dubois has been in office, he has sued at least 10 people or entities in four lawsuits. Some have called his suits legal bullying or frivolous, including a judge who ordered Dubois to pay the attorney’s fees of the person he sued.

“I like to protect my rights and when people violate them, you better believe it I’m going after them,” Dubois told the Miami Herald. “So yes, if someone violates me, I’m going to react.”

Dubois, CEO of a cloud-based security surveillance company, was elected Palmetto Bay’s vice mayor in 2012. Most, but not all, of the lawsuits pertain to something he did or was criticized for in that capacity. The city did not pay for any of the lawsuits.

The vice mayor’s pattern of filing complaints is “possibly an abuse of the court,” said Donald Jones, a First Amendment law professor at the University of Miami.

“Anyone who is a public figure is subject to fair comment about them and their capacity as a public figure,” Jones said. “You misuse the court if you use it to try to censor the opinions of others. … The question here is, are these complaints valid or not? When you sue the ethics commission, the person who serves you with a notice, or a blogger, that sounds pretty odd to me. ”

In June, the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust said that Dubois committed ethical violations when he participated in a vote in May despite the advice of county ethics officials that he not vote. Dubois says he voted after he got a green light from state ethics officials and that he never asked the county for an opinion.

A month later, Dubois filed a civil rights lawsuit against the commission, accusing executive director Joseph Centorino of “furnishing false information and omitting significant facts to members of the public,” ultimately damaging his reputation. This case is still pending.

The lawsuit is no surprise to some lawyers who have represented people targeted by Dubois.

Ben Kuehne, a Miami attorney who has represented three defendants sued by Dubois, called his dealings “quite frightening.”

“For Dubois, it’s ‘Don’t mess with me or I’ll mess with you,’ ” Kuehne said. “He makes allegations, requires the citizens to obtain a lawyer and then fight the case in court. It’s expensive and stressful, and they nonetheless have to defend themselves against what in my opinion is a legal bullying tactic.”

In 2013, Dubois filed a lawsuit against Palmetto Bay resident Gary Pastorella after he said Pastorella “ginned up slander sheets” targeting him during election season. Dubois later withdrew the case.

In that same 34-page lawsuit, Dubois sued the no-longer published blog “Pbcheckstherecord.Org” for libel, calling the then-unidentified authors “cowards” for publishing “misleading photos” and “scurrilous fabrications.” Dubois said it “damaged and defamed” him.

The case was ultimately dismissed. It was later discovered that the creator of the blog was Shelley Stanczyk, the former mayor of Palmetto Bay.

Also sued were Nancy Lee, the creator of a community watchdog blog, for slander and defamation of character, among other things, after her blog posted a photo sketch of mangrove growth in front of Dubois’ home, alluding to the citation he got for cutting down mangroves. After Lee submitted legal questions to be answered by Dubois, he dropped her and her husband — also named in the suit — from the case.

UM professor Jones said it’s not uncommon to group defendants in one lawsuit, even when the defendants all acted independently of each other, because the court in most cases considers it “efficient.”

“The question is, is he bunching them together because he wants to be efficient or is it because he’s simply upset with all of them. Is there an emotional driver here?” Jones said.

Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor of constitutional law, said it’s very difficult for a public official to win a defamation suit because “first the statement has to be false and made with actual malice, meaning the person making the claim has to have known that it was false.

“So even if the statement turned out not to be true, the false statement is still protected. The reason why the free-speech clause [of the Constitution] provides so much protection is to make sure that defamation suits don’t chill criticism of our government,” Corbin said. “If every time you criticized an official, you had to worry if it was 100 percent true, then you might decide not to criticize them at all. We need to be able to talk about them in order for our democracy to work.”

In another suit, Dubois accused Palmetto Bay resident Elizabeth “Libby” Williams of stealing campaign signs. That case was ultimately dismissed.

Dubois also sued John Ricisak, an investigator for the county Division of Environmental Resources Management, after Ricisak cited Dubois for having cut down mangroves at his home. A judge dismissed the case, calling it frivolous, and ordered Dubois to pay almost $66,000 in attorney fees.

Right around the same time, Dubois filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against Miami-Dade County; Lee Hefty, the county’s environmental resources director; and county deputy mayor Jack Osterholt in connection with the same incident. The county filed motions to dismiss the case, which is still pending. Dubois claims that the county has engaged in “selective enforcement, First Amendment retaliation, discrimination” and that the citation was falsely issued, although he paid the fine.

Both lawsuits were filed after the county first sued Dubois, accusing him of filling wetlands and cutting down mangroves. The county’s case is still ongoing.

“In my opinion as a lawyer, he has a record of filing lawsuits that are not righteous, not valid, not based on a valid public purpose,” Kuehne said.

Dubois: “That’s like saying someone breaks into your house and robs you. Are you telling me you won’t press charges? I’m sure you would. When my rights are violated, I act. I don’t just sit there. ”

Jones said Dubois “needs to seriously think about whether this in itself could be damaging his career. He’s in the realm of risking sanctions against him for his actions.”

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan