Marco city attorney, council chairman deny pressuring victim in Niblock case

Devan Patel
Marco Eagle

The Marco Island city attorney and council chairman are denying allegations of impropriety in their handling of the battery accusations against former City Manager Lee Niblock.

In an email Friday afternoon to the City Council, City Attorney Alan Gabriel denied that the city attempted to pressure the woman who accused Niblock or was protecting its then-city manager as suggested by statements in a Collier County Sheriff's Office report released Thursday.

"I can assure you that the City officials and employees when presented with a serious charge of misconduct by its City Manager took the necessary steps to make sure that the complaints were investigated by the appropriate agencies," Gabriel wrote to the council. "To suggest that the City or any of its officials attempted to apply pressure to the victim at any time during this process is simply untrue.  Just as any implication that the City sought to protect Mr. Niblock is also simply untrue."

Lee Niblock, former Marco Island city manager

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Niblock, 64, turned himself in to local authorities late Thursday afternoon after the State Attorney's Office issued a warrant for his arrest stemming from an incident on Jan. 31.

The State Attorney's Office has charged Niblock with misdemeanor battery. 

Bond was set at $2,500. A Collier County jail deputy said Niblock bonded out around 8 p.m. Thursday and is set to appear in court on May 23.

Melissa Scott, the principal at Marco Island Academy, told investigators Niblock made several inappropriate remarks and physical gestures to her during and after a dinner meeting.

In a sworn statement, Scott reported Niblock "grabbed her so that he could hug her and attempted to kiss her on the lips, but she turned her head and he kissed her on the cheek. Lee then pulled on her and asked for another kiss, but she refused and exited the car."

Scott also said Niblock made comments that made her uncomfortable, such as referring to them as a "powerful couple having dinner," calling her "the most attractive female in the restaurant" and stating she could "pay him with a hug and a kiss" for dinner.

At one point in their dinner conversation, Scott said Niblock offered to mentor her with the opportunity to become the city manager once he retired.

Niblock was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 20 after Police Chief Al Schettino informed the council of the battery allegations, which were reported on Feb. 6.

The Marco Island Police Department turned over the investigation to the Collier County Sheriff's Office on Feb. 22, but before the investigation was concluded, the Council voted March 19 to fire Niblock after conducting its own internal investigation.

In Gabriel's email to council, he noted the city's investigation "found evidence of ethical improprieties, enabling the City Council to properly and legally terminate Mr. Niblock for ethical violations as provided in his employment contract."

The reasons given during the March 19 meeting included Niblock's:

  • Handling of an employee climate survey.
  • Interviewing a female job candidate at a restaurant and ordering wine.
  • Demanding that the battery investigation be sent to the highest level of the Sheriff's Office.
  • Sending an email that referred to the St. Valentine's Day massacre.

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The Sheriff's Office report also detailed the city attorney and council's involvement in the case, including allegations of pressuring Scott into signing a resolution agreement.

In an interview with investigators, Chairman Jared Grifoni acknowledged speaking with Scott on Feb. 6 about her accusations and speaking with her father, Michael Hook, the following day, but denied he had seen the agreement sent to Scott or that he had threatened to remove the Marco Island Academy's designation as a hurricane shelter as a "legislative priority" if she did not sign the agreement.

Grifoni released a statement Thursday evening defending the handling of the allegations.

"All actions taken by myself, the city attorney, and the City were done out of respect for her request for privacy," Grifoni wrote. "It was our utmost concern to be considerate of the victim’s wishes and to reassure her and her employer that whatever the outcome of the investigation, the City’s relationship with the victim and her employer would not be negatively affected and that we would continue to have an excellent working relationship."

While he did not address specific details in the Sheriff's Office report due to the active case, Gabriel echoed Grifoni's comments and denied any special protection of Niblock in his email to the council.

"At the same time, while not being privy to the formal complaint that the victim later decided to file and the confidential information contained within that complaint, the City had no option but to afford Mr. Niblock with appropriate due process and his rights under the employment contract and the City’s Charter," Gabriel wrote in his email Friday.