Former Okaloosa state House candidate Hinkle files lawsuit claiming 'digital defamation'

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

TALLAHASSEE — Jeff Hinkle, who ran unsuccessfully in 2020 to replace outgoing Mel Ponder as the state representative for Okaloosa County's House District 4, has filed a lawsuit alleging "digital defamation" was committed against him during that election cycle's Republican primary.

The lawsuit, filed in March on Hinkle's behalf by attorney Lori Weems Evers, lives on despite the fact Hinkle has yet to locate a defendant. A hearing in the case has been scheduled for Sept. 30 in Tallahassee.

Evers said Hinkle has "spent literally tens of thousands of dollars" trying to smoke out the people who approved political ad messaging falsely accusing him of bankrupting a company he owned, failing to pay income taxes and fleeing to Florida to avoid those taxes.

Jeff Hinkle has filled a lawsuit claiming "digital defamation" during his campaign for the state House District 4 seat in 2020. No specific defendant is named in the complaint.

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"Basically, we've served every individual that could have been involved," she said. "Hopefully, someone will step up."

The lawsuit does not seek damages or to "expose the identity of the defendant," which, according to the complaint, could violate a First Amendment right associated with his anonymity. Hinkle is seeking "only a declaration by the court that the defamation within control of the Florida courts is, in fact, defamatory."

Primarily, the suit seeks to have the material Hinkle finds most offensive removed from various media where it still appears.

Case filings reveal that Hinkle's ongoing effort to serve the so-called Defendant John Doe 1 with notice of the legal action at hand has brought his legal team to the doorstep of the Gulf Coast Conservatives Fund.

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Gulf Coast Conservatives Fund is a now-defunct political committee, but between June 11 and Aug. 19, 2020, records show, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz plunged $98,000 directly from his Friends of Matt Gaetz campaign fund into committee coffers.

The committee's moniker appeared on negative ads targeting Hinkle as well as Ray Sansom, who was running at the time against Marcus Chambers for the Okaloosa County School Superintendent's seat. 

On Aug. 17, Patt Maney won the hotly contested, four-person Republican primary and went on to defeat a Democratic and write-in candidates to secure the District 4 House seat. Chambers defeated Sansom to retain a superintendent's seat Gov. Ron DeSantis had appointed him to in January 2019.    

Hinkle's lawsuit contends that "videos, broadcast images, application program interfaces and social media posts" produced for and used by Gulf Coast Conservative Fund "contain defamatory statements as well as falsified images that are patently false and deceptive."

Claims that Hinkle's company was bankrupt and didn't pay taxes, viewed by hundreds of people, misrepresented the facts by stating that he personally failed to pay personal income taxes, that he bankrupted "his company" and that he intentionally evaded taxes by moving to Florida, the lawsuit says.

It states the bankrupt company was not Hinkle's, but a company in which he was a managing partner. It states he actually took over the company in question, restructured it, created a new company, paid off the IRS and nearly all creditors and made it prosperous while saving many jobs in the process.

The lawsuit also claims those who created the anti-Hinkle ads anonymously posted "falsified and fraudulent photographs" that made the candidate look much older than he actually is. 

"Mr. Hinkle was horribly defamed and we intend to set the record straight," said Nathan Clark, another attorney representing Hinkle.

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The legal complaint states that efforts to secure service of legal papers to the John Doe defendant in person "would be a futile act" because the defendant has concealed his identity and place of residence.

It alleges the defendant being sought used "an intricate network of agents and affiliated not-for-profit groups that conceal the actual author and publisher of the electronical communications used." 

The defamatory information was posted on such sites as: vote4sandra.com; constantcontact.com; YouTube.com; googlemail.com; youtube.com; google.com; cox.net; Facebook.com; me.net; youtube.com and wcvctv.com, the lawsuit states.

Vote4sandra.com was the website employed during the state representative's campaign by Hinkle rival Sandra Atkinson.

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Hinkle, the lawsuit states, is looking for a court declaration that "the words and altered photographs, written instruments and videos and digitalized form, authored, posted and/or published by the anonymous defendant constitute defamation persay."

Defamation persay can be alleged in a case in which a person is falsely accused of several things, including improper conduct involving a person's business.

On July 2, Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey ordered a 45-day extension of the Hinkle legal team's effort to serve court papers on the anonymous John Doe Defendant 1. 

This prompted a reaction from David Biddle, who had served as the registered agent of Gulf Coast Conservative Fund.

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Biddle, through attorneys, called on the judge to quash the efforts to serve legal notice and dismiss the Hinkle lawsuit. The Sept. 30 hearing has been set to litigate the motion.

The motion claims Biddle cannot legally accept service for an unidentified person.

"At best, (Hinkle) has simply mailed packages to the (Gulf Coast Conservative) Fund’s former address and claimed that the packages are somehow ‘proof of service.’ In fact, the mailings are not statutory service and Plaintiff’s ‘proof of service’ filed on May 6, 2021, must be stricken," it states.

The case should be dismissed, Biddle's attorneys argue, because Hinkle has not provided clear and convincing evidence that anyone acted against him with actual malice.