Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Orange County Property Appraiser Rick Singh is suing political action committees and their anonymous supporters for running a "smear campaign" against him during the 2016 election.
Singh announced the lawsuit on Tuesday with his lawyers, former judge Belvin Perry and Frank Kruppenbacher, two attorneys who work at the Orlando-based law firm Morgan & Morgan.
"Who are those entities?" Singh tells reporters at a news conference. "What do they have to gain? These are relevant questions that I think the voters of Orange County deserve to know."
The complaint, filed in Orange County circuit court, names two PACs called Leadership For Florida Future and For a Better Orange County, as well as their anonymous financial backers. The suit says the PACs falsely accused Singh in mailers and television ads of changing his first name from "Parmanand," to "Ricky" to hide a federal lawsuit, financial debt and a felony arrest, among other things.
"All of the aforementioned assertions and statements are untrue, false and libel," the lawsuit says. "Defendants acted maliciously with knowledge or reckless disregard as to the falsity of a matter concerning a public official."
Singh has filed the lawsuit as a private citizen and is asking for damages in excess of $25,000. His attorneys say any damages collected would be donated to charity.
"It's an issue that strikes at the very heart of our democracy," Perry says. "This is a classic example, not of fake news, but news that is told that is malicious and false."
Edward DeAguilera, Singh’s opponent in the 2016 election, told the Orlando Sentinel
last year that he had nothing to do with negative advertisements. Singh's lawyers estimate the PACs, which were not registered properly, spent about $3.4 million in mailers and television ads to discredit him before the election. Kruppenbacher says the lawsuit will use the discovery process to identify the individuals who contributed money to finance the campaign against Singh.
"I think the commercial side realized for the first time that Orange County had a certified property appraiser elected to that position and appraisals were being done correctly," Kruppenbacher says. "You're talking lots of money. If I told you that you could save millions by having control of the property appraiser, would you want to have control of the property appraiser?"
Singh and his lawyers didn't speculate on who they thought could be secret backers of the PACs, but it's known around town that Singh has acquired the ire of theme parks like Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld because he's insisting they pay what they owe. The Associated Press
reports the theme parks sued Singh's office after they say he's appraised them higher than the office has in the past.
From 2014 to 2016, Disney's tax bill jumped from $84.5 million to $102.6 million, while Universal's taxes went from $148.6 million to $297 million. But Singh has said what's actually happening is these properties were valued much lower before he took office.
"When the entire theme park of Magic Kingdom is assessed less than the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, that’s a problem," Singh told the podcast Orlando Tourism Report
. "The entire theme park, the land, and all the improvements. Picture that for a minute, and that speaks volumes."
Singh also told the podcast's hosts that he didn't have the resources, but that he hoped someone would look into the smear campaign that was waged against him.
"Not only did they put a lot of money toward my opponent, they also put a lot of money in a smear campaign with untruths and just made up facts," he said. "They just make stuff up. Fake news took its birth here in Orange County because they essentially just make stuff up at will. They banded together, and they created entities and they send out these mailers."
On Tuesday, Singh briefly commented about the rumors that he's putting in his bid to be Orange County's next mayor, saying he didn't know at this time whether it was something he would pursue. The property appraiser did clarify, though, that his lawsuit has nothing to do with that race.
"This is about righting a wrong," he says. "This is about standing up for democracy. This is not a partisan issue. …Our community is better than this."