Ex-Hillsborough County attorney should be fined, censured for role in secret pay raises, judge rules

TAMPA — The fallout from secret pay raises continues at County Center, at least for former Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee.

A state administrative law judge this week recommended that the Florida Commission on Ethics find that Lee misused her public office, publicly censure and reprimand her and impose a $5,000 fine.

Lee's legal opinion blessing raises for herself and then-County Administrator Pat Bean without telling commissioners "was a self-interested advocacy piece," Judge Elizabeth McArthur ruled.

Lee's testimony — that she was confused and felt rushed in issuing her opinion — was "not credible" and was a failure in her responsibilities as a lawyer, the judge found.

County commissioners forced Lee out of her position last year, partly for her role in justifying the 1 percent pay raises she and Bean received without board approval in 2007.

Lee "acted with wrongful intent by placing her own self-interest in securing the special financial benefit she coveted above her professional obligations to … the (County Commission)," McArthur wrote in the opinion issued Wednesday.

Lee did not return a call seeking comment Friday. The Florida Bar dismissed a similar complaint against her earlier this year.

Another administrative law judge recommended that Bean be cleared of an ethics complaint about her involvement in the matter, largely because she had solicited Lee's opinion before accepting the raise. The ethics commission is scheduled to take up that recommendation this month and probably will consider the order regarding Lee in September.

"I feel that justice has been served, to a certain degree," said George Niemann, the Dover activist who filed the complaints against Bean and Lee. "She got what she had coming to her."

The pay raises had been the subject of controversy at County Center for the better part of two years.

First came news that Bean had awarded secret pay raises to her top deputies in 2007. An auditor charged with investigating those raises then turned up the separate pay hikes that Bean and Lee had accepted about the same time.

Bean has said her top deputy came up with the idea of rewarding directors who had submitted budget cuts that year.

A member of Bean's staff asked Lee for a legal opinion justifying that Bean and Lee would qualify for the pay hike, though both had contracts saying commissioners set their salaries. Lee opined that the raises were essentially benefits and that their contracts entitled them to benefits given to other county employees.

She wrote a similar opinion six days later on behalf of Richard Garrity, the county's Environmental Protection Commission executive director. He ultimately turned down the raise and remains on the job.

Bean was fired before Lee was dismissed, in part for accepting the raise. Lee got a payout of roughly $150,000 when commissioners ousted her in June 2011 in exchange for going without a fight.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Ex-Hillsborough County attorney should be fined, censured for role in secret pay raises, judge rules 07/13/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 14, 2012 12:11am]

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