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Lawyer will work for free, helping Hillsborough County Commission to trust again

Hillsborough County commissioners sounded a little suspicious. And really, can you blame them?

They are still working through some serious trust issues with their own county administrator and lawyer. Then there's that scoundrel in their midst, fellow Commissioner Kevin White, who left them red-faced and holding a six-figure legal tab after a federal jury found he sexually harassed his young aide.

And now here was this real-deal lawyer standing before them, this Richard A. Harrison, offering to help them try to recoup those legal fees from that embarrassment of a case that still has voters furious.

Offering to represent them for free, except for costs like transcripts and depositions. To be paid nil. As in nada.

How could this be?

They asked this experienced, board-certified lawyer: So, got anything pending before this commission that might mean a conflict of interest — maybe a little land use dealie, a little zoning thing?

Nope.

Okay, so maybe you're supporting a candidate running against Commissioner White?

Nope again.

"There's no hidden agenda here?" asked Commissioner Jim Norman. And even White himself quipped, "That wasn't your campaign contribution check I got the other day?" Because apparently nothing's too serious to joke about, not even costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for your bad behavior.

Because it needs to be done, Harrison answered.

And, yes, given this mess, it takes a minute to process that one.

"It's sort of sad you can't really say stuff like this without people snickering, but there really is a strong tradition of public service in the legal community," Harrison, 49, told me later when I asked the question yet again. "I am not the first person who worked for free."

So it's about personal outrage?

"It's certainly not a wise use of taxpayer money, particularly given what's going on today," he said, a good lawyerly answer. "People a lot smarter than me will have to deal with the moral judgements."

Harrison is no newbie to government lawyering. He was in the thick of the privatization of Tampa General Hospital in the 1990s and more recently sued local county clerks he said were illegally overcharging folks filing fees in divorce cases. Right now he represents a small-town city commissioner in Manatee County embroiled in a recall petition, ethics complaint and public records dispute.

So who is this guy?

He says he never meant to be a trial lawyer, but when he landed at Allen Dell, a firm representing the airport authority in a suit involving a contractor and glass that kept falling out, he got a taste for this government stuff. Added bonus: Governments never seem to run out of problems.

He is a husband and father of daughters, a workaholic, a reader of biographies and history. And, yes, he wants to do this for free.

At the meeting, Commissioner Norman could not seem to wrap his head around the idea that Harrison was not even asking for the $25,000 cap they put on the case ("If you insist, I'll take it," Harrison said, and you could almost see follow commissioners going "Nooooooooooooooooooo!") They voted 6-0 to accept.

Here is my uncharacteristically uncynical take: Good. And, thanks.

Lawyer will work for free, helping Hillsborough County Commission to trust again 06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 6:47pm]
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