TAMPA — Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner has said he fired his human resources director for making false accusations against him in a sexual discrimination claim.
He maintains that stance in a recent response to a federal wrongful termination lawsuit the former director, Carolyn Filippone, filed last month.
Turner faces a tough re-election vote next week after attracting opposition largely due to his admission of dating and sending porn to Filippone, details included in her claim. His office — and by extension, taxpayers — are paying for his defense.
Turner said in the lawsuit response, filed late last month, that Filippone's original claims — that he made unwanted sexual advances toward her then banished her to a satellite office when she declined them — are not true.
In fact, Filippone can't show that her claims of harassment and retaliation were even made in good faith, he said.
As such, he said in the response, Filippone can't now claim she was wrongfully fired for simply taking advantage of her right to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — as she says she was.
"We believe her claims were demonstrably untrue," said Tom Gonzalez, a private attorney representing Turner's office in this case. "There isn't protection for telling untruths to the EEOC."
Turner's response notes that the EEOC was unable to conclude that Filippone's rights had been violated after investigating her initial complaints.
That's not uncommon, said Filippone's attorney, who said the EEOC's finding did not exonerate Turner. Chris Jayson said his client stands by her complaint.
"Every employer thinks every EEOC complaint is baseless and not brought in good faith," Jayson said. "Employers don't have the right to terminate someone for availing themselves of the remedies of the EEOC just because the EEOC elected not to go forward."
Turner fired Filippone in May as the Tampa Bay Times was preparing a story about her complaint to the EEOC. In it, Filippone said she previously had an "adult relationship" with Turner while in his employment and both were divorced, and that he subsequently sought to rekindle a sexual relationship, including by sending her porn. There were other, spoken advances, she said.
When she refused, she says she had some of her job duties stripped and she was banished from County Center in downtown Tampa to an office in Brandon. The transfer occurred in 2009, coinciding with Turner's new wife discovering text messages from him to Filippone, she said.
Turner acknowledged dating Filippone sometime in 2001 and sending her pornographic emails after he had remarried. But he said they were part of a mutual and consensual exchange during nonwork hours using personal equipment. And he said the texts his wife discovered were graphic ones from Filippone.
The emails stopped more than a year before Filippone filed her complaint in 2010, at least according to records she included with her EEOC submissions. Turner said all other aspects of her complaint, including spoken advances she says took place after the emails were sent, are false.
He said in the response she was transferred to Brandon as part of a larger office reorganization, to get important documents and equipment away from the threat of coastal storm surge in the event of hurricane. His own EEOC response included records suggesting Filippone was not cut off from peers as she claimed.
Turner is facing a challenge from state Sen. Ronda Storms in Tuesday's Republican primary. Storms, who got into the race after the story of Filippone's complaint broke, has made his porn-sending and dating admission the focus of her campaign.
Turner's in-house general counsel, who concentrates on real estate appraisal law, said the office is paying for his boss' outside legal representation since it is the office being sued.
The Times has previously quoted Gonzalez in stories about Filippone's allegations, before he was hired to represent Turner. He has said that, by firing Filippone, Turner potentially opened himself to further claims by her of discrimination or retaliation.
"She's protected from retaliation," Gonzalez said at the time, "provided she had the basis for a good-faith belief that she had been harassed."
According to Turner's response, his contention is that she did not.
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.