Sunshine and Darkness

Is Michael Barfield a Crusader or a Con Man?

The complicated case of our city's most controversial figure.

By Tony D'Souza March 1, 2016 Published in the March 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

On the afternoon of July 29, 1983, Michael Barfield was on a bus traveling north of Gainesville, alone and with no idea where he was going. The 21-year-old, then serving a three-year sentence for grand larceny at Baker Correctional Institution in Sanderson, had spent part of the previous month being interrogated by officials from the FBI and the Office of Naval Intelligence. The bus belonged to the Florida Department of Corrections, and Barfield did, too.

A year earlier, the Pensacola native had been arrested multiple times for a number of felonies in and around his hometown, including car theft, burglary, check forging and credit card fraud. He had a baby boy he’d never seen and whom he’d fathered with a girl he hardly knew, an 18-year-old he’d met on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach, Va., while vacationing two years earlier. His father, a Monsanto chemical plant line worker, and his mother, who worked for the Escambia County School Board in food service administration, were law-abiding people. They couldn’t have imagined this outcome for the youngest of their four children.

Barfield would soon learn his destination: Florida State Prison’s notorious Q Wing in Bradford County. His time there would scar and shape the rest of his life.

“I had done something wrong,” said Barfield recently from behind the desk of his downtown Sarasota office. Now 53, Barfield is slender, with graying hair, and chooses his words carefully. “But I hadn’t done anything so wrong [as] to warrant what would happen to me.”

Although he’d been convicted of grand larceny for passing bad checks, Barfield had also been granted youthful offender status, which should have prevented his transfer to an adult facility, especially to the most secure one in the state. But that is where he was taken, to solitary confinement on the death row wing, the same wing that provided a home for Old Sparky, the electric chair, as well as those who were led to it, serial killers like Ted Bundy. By the end of August, 5-foot-10-inch Barfield says he was so stressed he’d lost 14 pounds, and he was transferred to a Q Wing infirmary.

According to his testimony in a suit he filed against the Department of Corrections in 1986, Barfield was subjected to myriad tortures in the weeks before being moved to the infirmary. Guards flicked the lights off and on in his cell, taunting him about an impending visit to Old Sparky. Once they entered the cell threatening to cut his hair in preparation for electrocution, even as he screamed and kicked at them from under his bed. Worst of all, Barfield testified, a prisoner assigned to mopping duty regularly let himself into Barfield’s cell with a key, beating and raping him. Barfield says he repeatedly reported the abuse and asked for a lawyer, but nothing was done.

Prison officials later denied Barfield’s abuse allegations, although they admitted he had been sent to isolation on death row. That decision had been made in conjunction with the FBI after Barfield had claimed, while at Baker Correctional Institution, that he’d been called by a “foreign agent” seeking sensitive information he’d been privy to while in the Navy. By the time a court ruled in 1988 that his transfer to death row had not been improper, Barfield, who’d already spent much of his prison time teaching himself the law and rules of civil procedure, knew that he could take his case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

This he did in 1989, conducting his own oral arguments—an unusual achievement for someone who is not a lawyer—and winning a retrial. The case was ultimately settled, and although the appeals court ruled the transfer to death row was improper, neither the Department of Corrections nor the FBI ever admitted wrongdoing.

In the decades since, questions about Michael Barfield have persisted, and not only about what happened to him in prison all those years ago. After his release, he committed more crimes and spent years in other prisons. But he never stopped studying the law. Today, in addition to being the vice president of the Florida ACLU, Barfield has become, arguably, the most powerful paralegal in the state. (He does not have a law degree and his prior convictions prevent him from becoming a lawyer of the Florida Bar.) He is a widely recognized legal expert in public records and Sunshine laws whose work on behalf of various attorneys—most notably Sarasota’s Andrea Mogensen—has been called heroic by advocates of government accountability. Others, including Barfield’s many enemies, hold a different view.


“Why are you doing an article on Michael Barfield?” asks one Sarasota attorney close to city politics. “He’s a liar and felon who terrifies people. I hope you are not going to aggrandize him.”

“He’s a piranha working with a lawyer who has no sense of ethics,” says retired criminal court judge Frank Brenner. “His downfall will only come when the way he’s ripping off the city leads to a public uproar.”

Much of the anger of his detractors—including, an anonymously run website that constantly pillories him—stems from costly lawsuits that Barfield and Mogensen have filed against numerous government entities and officials, many of them on behalf of the activist group Citizens for Sunshine. At the eye of the storm are Florida’s 1909 Public Records law and 1967 Government-in-the-Sunshine law. Together, they mandate public access to most records created by governing bodies. They also require that any governing board with the power to make decisions give public notice of its meetings, allow the public to attend and keep minutes.

Compliance with these laws is not straightforward, especially since the Florida Legislature has created many amendments and exceptions to them. Newer technologies like emails and text messages have complicated things further. Just what constitutes a violation is rich fodder for lengthy lawsuits. Still, the laws encourage the filing of accountability suits—and provide for the awarding of attorneys’ fees—and those suits are often vigorously defended by local governments at taxpayers’ expense.

“You’ve got this very strict statute; there is no safe harbor from it,” says Sarasota attorney Morgan Bentley, who has defended the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County against two suits Barfield has helped file. “It’s like when the Americans with Disabilities Act came out [in 1990]. You’d have attorneys who would find these little motels without elevators and not in compliance, and they’d file a suit and the owners would settle and pay fees.”

To some, Barfield is just this sort of opportunist, a former criminal who uses his admittedly formidable intelligence to con the public, exploiting profitable loopholes in the law for his own gain.

To some, but not all.

“Michael’s amazingly brilliant and committed to open access to public records and good government,” says Tampa-based First Amendment attorney Gregg Thomas. “The fact that he has a criminal conviction has no bearing on [the merits of his lawsuits]. That’s ridiculous.”

“There is no doubt there are people who would go out of their way to hurt Michael,” adds Joel Chandler, a Lakeland-based open records advocate. “People don’t like to be held accountable….Anyone involved in activism is going to be the focus of criticism.”

That opinions should remain so divided over a man who has been in the public eye for decades is intriguing, to say the least. Barfield is an object of scrutiny wherever he goes. People question his ethics, his motivations, even what he can call himself.

“[Barfield] can be referred to as paralegal, consultant, or paraprofessional,” declared Florida Circuit Judge Robert Bennett in a 2009 decision, a ruling that would seem to short-circuit the efforts of Barfield’s foes to have him censured for practicing law without a license.

“He shouldn’t be calling himself anything,” protested Brenner recently. Brenner is responsible for two of the four complaints filed against Barfield for practicing law without a license. And though all four were eventually dismissed by the Florida Bar, there are some who will always doubt Barfield’s bona fides—indeed will always doubt whether he can be more than what he once was.

“Barfield’s a con man’s con man, no question about it,” said Federal District Judge Richard Lazzara during a sentencing hearing in 1999, an assessment that dogs Barfield to this day.

Like a character in a John Grisham legal thriller, Barfield cuts a lean and youthful figure, dressing in a smart, casual Floridian style. He lives in Laurel Park and drives a stylish, late-model, white Thunderbird convertible. His son is now 32, and Barfield has a 17-year-old daughter, too, who lives with him every other week. Sharon Patten, the woman he met all those years ago on the Virginia Beach boardwalk, and who is now a Sarasota nurse, is the mother of both children. Barfield was 19 when he met her, newly discharged from the Navy and already in trouble with the law. During most of their children’s early years, Patten raised them alone, a consequence of Barfield’s long prison sentences. She only reconnected with him in the early ’90s. Soon after that, Patten left a 10-year marriage for Barfield, and the couple married in 2010; they divorced last year.

“He always kept me separate to protect me,” says Patten, referring to both Barfield’s criminal history and to his legal work. Speaking of the man she calls her soul mate, Patten adds, “I don’t want to know and I’ve always kept myself in the dark. We’d go to parties and people would say to me, ‘Do you check your car [for bombs] before you get in?’ He’s a workaholic. He’s sacrificed his family and his children. Nothing will stop Michael. He believes in what he believes. He doesn’t care what people think of him.”

“Transparency is healthy for democracy,” Barfield says. “I want citizens to be informed about what their government is up to. It’s about justice.”

Beyond his open records and Sunshine cases, Barfield has worked on civil rights and police brutality cases, often on behalf of the ACLU, cases that advocates say have righted serious wrongs. But those cases have also made him enemies among the police and governmental officials whose transgressions he has exposed.

During a single month in 2012, he and Mogensen filed three lawsuits on behalf of Chris Young, an Occupy protestor arrested for writing political slogans in chalk in Five Points Park; Darren Kersey, a homeless man arrested for charging his cell phone in Gillespie Park; and Jason Dragash, who was beaten unconscious by police at downtown Sarasota’s Ivory Lounge.

After Barfield sued for the release of two videos of the Dragash incident, an officer, Scott Patrick, was fired by the city for excessive force. (Patrick claimed wrongful termination and was reinstated with back pay by an arbitrator in 2014.)

Another Barfield records request, also in 2012, turned up messages between police officers about what they termed “bum-hunting” for homeless people, messages that were widely reported in the press; and in 2014, Barfield requested the names of two North Port police officers put on administrative leave after they were accused of handcuffing, stripping and sexually assaulting a woman at a party. The city sued Barfield in that case, a move seen as a preemptive attempt to keep the names of the police officers from being disclosed. The suit was eventually dismissed, and the officers, Ricky Urbina and Melanie Turner, were named. Urbina killed himself before he could be arrested; Turner resigned, and the State Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute her due to lack of evidence.

Barfield’s advocacy on behalf of victims of police brutality began in the ’90s, while he was living in West Palm Beach. From 1990 to 1992, he worked on the civil suit filed on behalf of Bobby Jewett, a 34-year-old drug addict who lived with his schoolteacher mother. After being arrested for hitchhiking, Jewett was beaten to death while in police custody, a killing that ignited major protests against police. Though the officers involved were acquitted of murder, the city of West Palm Beach settled the case brought by Jewett’s mother for $1.25 million.

West Palm Beach is also where Barfield began his ACLU work, assisting lawyers for the organization who were defending Jennifer Johnson, a 26-year-old drug addict convicted in state court of delivering cocaine to her two newborn children, born a year apart, through her umbilical cord. The controversial conviction was overturned in 1992 by the Florida Supreme Court.

He also worked on the Pottinger case, a decade-long Miami case that reached settlement in 1998 and helped decide how municipalities may police the homeless. The precedent Pottinger established is at the heart of Sarasota’s own current battle over a homeless shelter; it advises that unless a city provides shelter beds, the homeless cannot be arrested for sleeping outside.

The Jewett case won him the attention and admiration of civil rights advocates, but it made him persona non grata among many police officers and civic officials. When Barfield alluded to traffic-ticket fixing at the West Palm Beach courthouse during a 1993 radio appearance, courthouse administrator Susan Ferrante responded by filing a civil slander case against him. Her case was dismissed but led to an investigation of ticket fixing that validated Barfield’s accusation and ended with several West Palm Beach officials forced to resign.

By 1994, West Palm Beach officials had had enough of Michael Barfield. According to government documents in another Barfield lawsuit, West Palm Beach police attempted to snare him in a sting involving the illicit sale of private donor records from the Police Benevolent Association. Barfield didn’t show up to make the buy. Instead, he counter-attacked, suing for the association’s records—resulting in embarrassing revelations that donations had been used for parties and to pay for the defense of police accused of abuse.

Barfield moved to Sarasota in 1996, after having lunch on St. Armands and being impressed with the city, he says. While he was known for his police brutality and ACLU work in West Palm Beach, in Sarasota, it’s his Sunshine and open records work that has made him notorious.

“Michael has two very different roles,” says a Sarasota public official who requested anonymity because he was the past focus of a Barfield suit. “One is his work with Sunshine lawsuits. Sunshine is a well-intentioned law that becomes a tool of leverage and intimidation for those looking to advance political agendas. Michael has perfected that more than anyone else. His other role is with the ACLU and issues like the homeless. There’s a good and bad side of Michael Barfield.”

In 2007, Barfield began working with Mogensen. Since then, his name or legal research has been attached to public records and Sunshine lawsuits against the City of Sarasota, Sarasota city commissioners, the Sarasota Police Department, the Sarasota police chief, a public arts steering committee, the Downtown Improvement District, the Homeless Advisory Task Force, the Police Advisory Panel, the Sarasota County Commission, Sarasota County commissioners, the Manatee School District, the Manatee County School Board and the cities of North Port, Anna Maria and Venice. In addition to the costs, those suits have cast a glaring spotlight on many officials and citizens, who often find themselves enmeshed in complex and time-consuming legal battles over laws they claim they don’t understand and never intended to break.

Mogensen says that she and Barfield have “six to 12 [lawsuits] going at all times” and win or settle 90 percent of them. Since 2009, those suits have cost the region’s taxpayers $4 million in fines, settlements, court costs and attorneys’ fees.

“[These suits’] are not about the money,” insists Barfield. “It’s the satisfaction of achieving justice and winning.”

There’s no question that Barfield loves to win. No battle is too small for him to wade into, and he’s a relentless fighter who loves to taunt—and punish—his opponents. Indeed, he seems to relish the enmity he creates. “It’s all sour grapes,” he says of his detractors. “They take it personally that a convicted felon beats them in a court of law—them and the best attorneys that they can hire at taxpayer expense.”

He frequents news websites and responds to his attackers on message boards.

After Frank Brenner’s second complaint against him for practicing law without a license was dismissed, Barfield emailed him: “Hi Frank: I wanted to pass along more good news. The Florida Bar dismissed your most recent complaint filed against me. Hope to see you soon! Michael Barfield, Legal Consultant.”

In 2014, when downtown business owner Ron Soto of Soto’s Optical put up signs on Main Street asking visitors not to give in to panhandling, Barfield put up his own signs urging people not to spend their money downtown. City attorneys spent six months last year rewriting the downtown sign ordinance, knowing that Barfield would likely pounce on any perceived infringement of his First Amendment rights. (Soto also filed an unlicensed-to-practice-law complaint against Barfield that was dismissed by the Bar last year, and at press time had a complaint for “aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of law” pending against Mogensen.)

Barfield’s Internet posts and the skirmish over downtown signage have infuriated his opponents; over the years, some have suffered more serious consequences.

In the 1992 race for West Palm Beach state attorney, Barry Krischer, the defense lawyer who had won the acquittal of the officers in the Bobby Jewett killing, was running against the incumbent in a hotly contested election. One month before voters went to the polls, Krischer was hit with a sexual harassment lawsuit by his former legal secretary. Krischer claimed the suit was a political move, and Barfield, while not admitting a direct role in it, doesn’t deny he was close to the case.

“I was aware Krischer was running,” Barfield says, with a mischievous grin. “[The secretary] was working in the office I was working in at the time. She told me about [the sexual harassment] and I said, ‘You need to find an attorney.’”

Krischer won the seat anyway, and the sexual harassment case against him was dismissed in 1993.

Barfield’s transfer to death row back in 1983, like so much of his life, is rich with drama and raises unanswered questions. When Barfield claimed at Baker Correctional that he had been contacted by a foreign agent, he said the agent had located him through a girlfriend he’d met during his two-year stint in the Navy, when he worked as an aerographer’s mate on the USS America aircraft carrier and had access to radar and weapons systems. After investigating Barfield’s spy claims, FBI special agent Doug Jones told prison officials that Barfield knew enough to pose a national security risk, which is what led to his Q Wing transfer.

By the time he was transferred to another prison after a month on death row, Barfield says he was so outraged at the way he’d been treated that he began poring over law books in the library and filing multiple lawsuits on behalf of himself and other prisoners. Then, in 1985, he went on the lam while on a prison work release program; he was apprehended and an additional 12 years were added to his sentence.

In 1986, Barfield filed suit against the Florida Department of Corrections for putting him on death row and for the abuse he said he suffered while there.

Tom Lyons, who was then a reporter at the Gainesville Sun Sentinel, wrote a front-page story for the paper. The Orlando Sentinel reported that Jones now believed Barfield fabricated the spy story, inspired by a novel titled Operation Lemonade. Although there’s apparently no novel by that name, Operation Lemon-Aid was a real 1977 FBI sting, in which a naval officer posed as a mole to catch Soviet spies; the episode was turned into a TV film. The former girlfriend, a naval officer, also told the press Barfield had made up the story.

The press coverage of his experience on Q Wing attracted the attention of Orlando attorney Lee Barrett, who took an interest in Barfield’s case and helped him get his additional 12-year sentence reduced. By 1989, Barfield was out of prison, living in Orlando and working as a paralegal at Barrett’s firm.

“Michael was a brilliant jailhouse lawyer, one of the best I’ve seen,” says Barrett. “You get one of these guys a week. Usually [their legal writing] reads like somebody with a sixth-grade education. Frankly, Michael’s like a Shakespearean character with a tragic flaw, an incredible guy who has made terrible choices.”

One of those choices occurred in West Palm Beach, at the same time Barfield was earning a reputation for crusading against police corruption. In 1995, he was arrested and charged with grand larceny, fraud and unlicensed practice of law for withholding $2,000 from a client. He filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy the following year—“I am not the world’s best manager of finances,” he says—and, with the criminal case pending, moved to Sarasota. In early 1997, Barfield pled guilty to grand theft and was sentenced to two years of house arrest in Sarasota.

“Banishment Ends Tiff With Police, Prosecutors” read the headline in Palm Beach’s Sun Sentinel, a misleading one in Barfield’s view. “[There was] no court order [of banishment],” he says. “[That comes from] the media.” Nevertheless, the headline follows him to this day, as his enemies often cite his “banishment.”

Barfield, then 36, would soon break the law again, a decision that would prove disastrous, and not only for him. In 1999, while working on a public funds embezzlement case involving developer Carl Bailey and corrupt officials at the Cape Coral Hospital, he was indicted for lying to a grand jury.

During the case, Barfield saw an affidavit stating that the judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Lee Gagliardi, and federal prosecutor Kathleen Haley had improperly met at the Plum Café near Fort Myers in 1997 to discuss Bailey’s prosecution. The accusation was made by two private investigators; Barfield later admitted he knew at the time it was false. As a result, the judge and prosecutor were dismissed from the case, and the incident clouded their reputations. Gagliardi, who until then had enjoyed a distinguished career, died in 1998 before his name could be cleared.

After the two private investigators admitted their allegations were false, Barfield briefly went on the run. (His ex-wife Sharon says she had been unaware of any problem until he came home one night, packed his bags and told her he was in trouble and had to go.) He was arrested in Nashville in January 1999. He spent the next six years in federal prisons in Marianna, Fla., and Edgefield, S.C.

“I should have told the truth when I got called before the grand jury,” says Barfield now. “I learned that [the affidavit] was not true and I didn’t say anything. [I rationalized] that it was someone else’s lie and not mine.”

That wasn’t all he came to regret. “[Prison] was harder [the second time],” Barfield says. “My daughter was very young. My son was 15; he was disappointed. There was a lot of guilt about that. It was very, very hard. Much harder. I [did] the only thing I know how to do. I trained myself even more, reading [the law]. I became the head law clerk at the prison.”

And something else happened too, Barfield recalls. Something fundamental changed in him.

He had always behaved as if he could outsmart anyone and anything, whether an opponent in a case or the legal system itself. At last, however, he began to recognize the consequences of his behavior. “It didn’t come in one lightning moment,” Barfield says. “But I decided I had to play within the rules and that I could play within the rules and that I must play within them. I was only hurting myself in not doing so.”

Barfield finished his federal prison sentence in 2005 and has not had any arrests since then. Instead, he began working with Mogensen and dedicated himself to open-records work. In 2009, the two won a $1.5 million settlement from the City of Venice over improper use of personal email by elected officials. The case has been seen as a harbinger of the Hillary Clinton email scandal. The settlement is the largest ever awarded in the history of Florida public records and Sunshine lawsuits, and Mogensen’s and Barfield’s fees accounted for nearly half that amount.

Last year, a case brought by Mogensen and settled by Florida Gov. Rick Scott over his behind-closed-doors firing of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey brought the pair statewide attention; Scott and his cabinet paid Mogensen $55,000. A case filed in October 2015 against the City of Sarasota on behalf of six homeless people will challenge the city’s outdoor lodging ordinance and focus on what’s been the most controversial issue of recent years: a homeless shelter. And a case against city commissioner Susan Chapman, which may be the most divisive and talked-about yet, will likely be heard later this year.

The Citizens for Sunshine suit against Chapman alleges that she, city commissioner Suzanne Atwell, city manager Tom Barwin, and business and police officials held an out-of-the sunshine meeting at downtown’s Tsunami restaurant in October 2013 to discuss the city’s homeless problem. As members of a governing board, if Chapman and Atwell participated in any discussions at that meeting, they would be in clear violation of the Sunshine law, since notice of the meeting was not given to the public. Chapman has said she was only at the meeting to listen and she did not discuss anything.

Former city charter review board member Gretchen Serrie is among the dozens of witnesses Mogenson has deposed so far. “It was amazing to be subpoenaed for a huge amount of emails, all my phone calls,” says Serrie. “It’s a tremendous amount of work. Michael has taken [the Sunshine law] farther than it was intended. Everybody feels very worried every time you send an email. It’s harassment of innocent citizens.”

Serrie says that last year she sorted through all the Sunshine cases compiled on the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information database; Sarasota had not had a single case until Barfield and Mogensen began filing them in 2008. A similar search through the database shows that after that, cases against the City of Sarasota and surrounding communities appear regularly. Only a handful of other cities and counties appear at all.

Atwell quickly agreed to settle her suit for a $500 donation to Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and with no admission of guilt. The case cost the city approximately $17,000 in legal fees.

“People said, ‘Why did you give in?’” recalls Atwell. “I was being pragmatic. I’m in charge of your taxpayer dollars. You will not slay that dragon. You might wound [Barfield], but you will not slay him, even if you win the case.”

Chapman had the opportunity to make a similar settlement, but she chose to fight. Her current legal bills are now estimated at more than $250,000, all to be paid by the city. Should Mogensen and Barfield prevail, they could be awarded legal fees on top of that—possibly even more than in the record-setting Venice case. At that time, Mogensen was awarded $300 per hour for 812 hours of work ($243,600); Barfield was awarded $120 for 834 hours ($100,080). According to Barfield, the Chapman case has already required “more hours than the Venice case. Well over 1,000 hours, I’m sure.” He also recently raised his hourly fee to $175.

“I’m a big supporter of the Sunshine law,” Chapman says about her decision to continue fighting the case. “[Barfield is] extending the Sunshine law to prevent commissioners from listening to constituents. You have to be able to listen to constituents. We were listening to people complain; no planning was discussed, no conversation. I’ve been pilloried in the press. It never ends with [him]. You have to draw a line.”

“All the complaining about Sunshine cases is absurd,” counters Mogensen. “All you have to do is [give] notice [of the meeting] to the public, let the public in if they want to come in, and take minutes. They are very easy things to do.”

“I don’t know what happened in that room,” says former County Commissioner Joseph Barbetta about Chapman’s case. “But when you are offered what she was offered [to settle]—$500 to charity, no admission of guilt, Sunshine training—that’s a no-brainer [and] best for the taxpayers.”

Barbetta and his fellow county commissioner, Paul Caragiulo, are friendly with Barfield. The three, who county insiders sometimes call the “Three Musketeers,” often get together for dinner and wide-ranging discussions. Both Barbetta and Caragiulo have expressed frustration with the City of Sarasota’s failure to build a homeless shelter—a shelter Barfield supports and Chapman adamantly opposes—and the county and the city are at increasingly bitter loggerheads over the issue. Sarasota City attorney Robert Fournier is among those who believe the lawsuit against Chapman is politically motivated.

“This lawsuit is not about protecting anyone’s constitutional rights,” Fournier told the City Commission in October. “It’s about furthering the political agenda of Michael Barfield.”

The stakes for Chapman are high. A fight with Barfield can end a political career.

“Michael’s not just a political tool,” says Anna Maria restaurateur Ed Chiles. “He’s a political hammer.”

Chiles hired Barfield and Mogensen in 2010, when Chiles suspected Anna Maria City Commissioner Harry Stoltzfus and others of colluding to block a redevelopment project in which he had heavily invested.

“We’d asked the city if they wanted to do the Pine Avenue Restoration [project] and they said, ‘yes,’” recalls Chiles. “We were four buildings into it when everything changed. We were at tremendous risk, millions of dollars at stake. We thought we knew [there was secret collusion] and they said, ‘No, no, no. Here’s our emails, all 11 of them.’ [After the suit was filed] 1,100 emails came to the surface. Public records and government in the sunshine make sure it’s a fair game. Michael is as competent at it as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

City voters narrowly recalled Stoltzfus in September of that year and the project went forward. Stoltzfus did not return a request for comment.

Attorney Bill Yanger, who covered the Stoltzfus suit for his blog, Our Anna Maria, does not share Chiles’ admiration for Barfield. “It was dirty politics and it worked,” he says. “They found the meanest, nastiest guy who played the meanest, dirtiest tricks. [Bringing in Barfield] was a decision to play hardball.”

“Trying to intimidate me is probably the worst thing someone can do because I don’t have any fear that what I am doing is wrong,” Barfield says. “People are going to have to accept and deal with me. I’m not going away.”

Whatever happens in the Chapman case, the outcome will almost certainly enrage Michael Barfield’s enemies and galvanize his supporters. For some the verdict will represent the latest chapter in his career as a valiant crusader for the public good. For others, it will be yet another sorry episode in the life of a ruthless con man. Barfield is not the sort to inspire finely shaded opinions. People see him in black and white, like a Rorschach test.

“He’s brought some good things and he’s brought some bad things,” says one local official. “You have to make up your own mind about him.”

Contributing editor and investigative journalist Tony D’Souza won a first-place “Charlie” award for Best Public Service coverage from the Florida Magazine Association for “Going Nowhere,” a report on Sarasota’s homeless issue, in our January 2015 issue.

Opening photo by Fred Lopez

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