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Hillsborough commissioner loses sexual discrimination lawsuit, ordered to pay $75,000

Alyssa Ogden was awarded $75,000 in her suit against Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, top.  The jury found that Ogden was fired for refusing White’s advances.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times photos

Alyssa Ogden was awarded $75,000 in her suit against Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, top. The jury found that Ogden was fired for refusing White’s advances.

TAMPA — A federal jury found Friday that Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White did indeed fire a former aide for refusing his sexual advances.

The jury in the civil trial ruled that White committed sexual discrimination and awarded former aide Alyssa Ogden $75,000 in damages. That was about half the amount she was seeking, though her mother said afterward that the most important outcome was the verdict.

"We're victorious," said Diane Kaulave, Ogden's mother. "Now nobody else will have to be put in that position."

Ogden was 22 when she went to work for White in April 2007. She claimed she weathered a barrage of sexual overtures from White that began within days of taking a job. She said she was fired seven months later for refusing to submit, an accusation she first shared with the St. Petersburg Times.

She left the U.S. District Court in downtown Tampa without commenting, as did her attorney, Ron Fraley.

The verdict is the latest blemish on White's political career, which has attracted its share of unflattering attention. He has faced claims ranging from seeking to inflate his pay as a Tampa City Council member to improperly intervening in a traffic stop involving his god-daughter.

In 2007, White, 44, a Democrat, in his first term on the commission, admitted lying on campaign finance reports and agreed to pay a fine. That episode would be used in the discrimination trial to undermine his credibility.

White did not comment while leaving the courthouse Friday with his wife. One of his attorneys, Matt Fenton, declined to dissect the jury's ruling or say whether White will appeal.

"I would prefer to study and think about what this said first," Fenton said. "You can't peek into the minds of the jury, and I never would endeavor to."

Hillsborough County, which was also named in the lawsuit, had spent nearly $140,000 on outside legal defense before the case went to trial. That bill likely will spike when trial costs are added. Ogden's attorney will now seek to have his expenses recouped from the county.

County Attorney Renee Lee said she is researching how much, if anything, White will have to pay to cover the tab. His fellow commissioners will have a say in whether to appeal.

Ogden, hired by White with little work experience, claimed that he repeatedly asked for kisses, made remarks about her appearance and asked her to "give me a chance" romantically.

White denied each claim.

His lawyers argued that Ogden was fired for poor work performance that was well documented and didn't improve after counseling. They noted that Ogden never raised the harassment allegations until after she was fired, and witnesses she cited, other than her sister, didn't back up her version of events.

However, much of the case focused on a trip to Atlanta that Ogden made with White within days of taking the job. She said her new boss portrayed it as a business trip in which she would meet influential people.

Instead, she said, they spent the overnight trip dining and shopping with an uncle of White's and C. Blythe Andrews Jr., publisher of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, a twice weekly paper catering to Tampa's black community. Later that night, White showed up at her hotel room asking to share her bed, she said.

White denied that accusation but offered a curious defense.

He said that Ogden asked to go on the trip and that Andrews, then 77, reimbursed him for her plane ticket. White said he had introduced Ogden and White days earlier and believed they developed a romantic attraction.

White said he had misgivings, but relented to a man who he described as an influential force in Tampa whose endorsements are coveted by politicians. He admitted booking a separate flight for Ogden to avoid appearing like they were together.

While in Atlanta, White said, he witnessed Andrews give Ogden a wad of cash and buy her hundreds of dollars worth of clothing. And he said he believed the two had shared the hotel room, among his explanation for why he wouldn't have visited her.

The terminally ill Andrews, who is married, denied White's account in videotaped testimony.

Fraley, Ogden's attorney, pounced on the story, asking him how a "normal, moral person" would agree to facilitate Andrews' alleged courtship.

"It's not my job to judge morality, to legislate morality," White said.

His attorney sought to mitigate the tale in his closing arguments Friday.

"This case is not about whether Mr. White is fit for public office," Fenton said. "Your job is to apply the facts to the law and determine whether sexual harassment occurred. This is not a morality play."

Earlier in the week, White went on a lengthy tangent about living a law-abiding life in expressing frustration that Ogden's suit had besmirched his reputation. Because of that, Fraley was allowed to ask him about his elections law violations in 2007, when White attempted to mask using campaign funds to buy Italian suits.

Fenton said it was a demonstration of poor judgment.

"This wasn't poor judgment," Fraley said in his closing argument. "Let's call things what they are: This is intentional falsification and lying."

Ogden sought $25,000 in lost wages. She sought $15,000 for past counseling sessions, $5,000 for future sessions, and another $100,000 for emotional suffering.

The six-woman, two-man jury gave her no money for lost wages, $15,000 for counseling and $60,000 for emotional suffering.

White is seeking re-election, and is being opposed for the Democratic nomination by former state Sen. Les Miller.

"I feel sorry for the families — his family, the young lady's family and Blythe Andrews' family,'' Miller said. "My heart goes out to all of them.''

Hillsborough commissioner loses sexual discrimination lawsuit, ordered to pay $75,000 08/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 20, 2011 7:55am]
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