Judge recommends clearing former Hillsborough Administrator Pat Bean in ethics case
An administrative law judge is recommending that an ethics charge against former Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean regarding a 1 percent pay raise she received in 2007 be dismissed.
That recommendation ultimately means that a controversy that preoccupied County Center for the better part of two years is coming to a close, with Bean winning almost every round, except the one where she lost her job.
Dover activist George Niemann, who filed the complaint, had alleged that Bean had misused her office by awarding the performance-based raise to herself and then County Attorney Renee Lee. The raises played a role in the dismissals of both, with commissioners citing it as part of their justification for firing Bean in 2010.
The administrative law judge said that in order to prove Bean misused her office for personal gain it had to be shown she willfully and corruptly -- meaning with "wrongful intent" -- obtained the raise. The judge said the evidence in the case failed to show she expressly authorized the pay hike.
"The evidence fails to establish by clear and convincing evidence that (Bean) has violated (Florida law) because there is no credible evidence that (Bean) acted with "wrongful intent," the recommendation states.
Bean did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Bean had been under scrutiny for many months by commissioners who had faulted her handling of budget challenges resulting from the economic downturn. In mid-2009, the Tampa Bay Times revealed that she had quietly awarded her top six deputies pay raises ranging from 7 to 17 percent in 2007 as other employees weathered pay freezes and added duties and many were laid off.
Commissioners asked their then-auditor to look into the raises and he discovered Bean and Lee separately had gotten 1 percent raises around the same time without the board's approval. County commissioners set the salary of the administrator and attorney.
Auditor Jim Barnes' finding touched off further controversy when he accused Bean and Lee of snooping through his email as he was conducting his review. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement ultimately looked at the raises and email-snooping allegations but concluded it could not be proved that crimes were committed. Barnes was later fired for other reasons.
Administrative Law Judge William F. Quattlebaum noted the FDLE finding about Bean and Lee in his recommendation.
He also noted that Bean initially didn't include herself among employees she awarded the raise, which was part of a recognition program used that year to thank department directors who had submitted reduced budgets. She has said she then received a note from Lee in which the attorney opined that she qualified for the raise because she had lowered her office budget. So had the administrator.
According to Quattlebaum's ruling, testimony in an April hearing indicated that Bean's top deputy, Wally Hill, turned the matter over to a benefits manager in her human resources department. That employee asked for an received a legal opinion from Lee in which the attorney said both qualified for the raises because their contracts said they were entitled to any benefit for which other county employees were eligible. The raises, as an employee incentive, were a benefit, she said.
Subsequently, paperwork was prepared and approved awarding Bean and Lee the raises and the judge said there was no evidence suggesting Bean had asked for that to be done, the recommendation states.
The judge noted that both Bean and Lee were under contract with the County Commission. The county's charter specifies that commissioners set the salaries of both, yet Bean had never sought her board's approval of the raises. But the judge notes Lee had provided an opinion saying the raises were a benefit, and Bean had no managerial duties over her at the time
"Once the county attorney issued a written legal opinion stating that the salary increases were available to contract employees as would be any other benefit made available to other employees, (Bean) had no obligation to refer the matter to the (Board of County Commissioners) for approval," Quattlebaum wrote.
A separate administrative law judge is expected to prepare a recommendation on a similar ethics complaint against Lee. Earlier this year, the Florida Bar grievance committee dismissed a complaint filed with it alleging that Lee should not have issued an opinion on a matter that affected her financially.
The administrative law judge's recommendation about Bean will go back to the Florida Commission on Ethics for a final ruling. A hearing is scheduled for July 27.
Commissioners used the raise as justification to fire Bean with cause, meaning they could deny her a year's pay and benefits to which she was entitled under her contract as severance. Bean sued, saying she had done nothing that justified denying her full severance, and won.
Lee was dismissed but brokered an agreement in which she accepted a partial payment of her severance.