TALLAHASSEE — The Pat Bean saga came to an end Friday when Florida's Commission on Ethics dismissed charges that the former Hillsborough County administrator misused her office by giving herself a secret raise.
The decision, offered without discussion, caps a two-year drama that included a criminal investigation and a court battle over whether Bean deserved severance after commissioners fired her in 2010.
In the end, Bean prevailed at every step, despite county commissioners' insistence that the 1 percent raise she accepted in 2007 without their authorization was an abuse of the public trust and an illegal act. The criminal investigation cleared her and a judge ruled commissioners could not deny her severance as a result.
"It's been a lot of hard work to get here," Bean said, adding that she's been stressed about health issues. "To have this be over is wonderful."
The dropped charge came after an administrative law judge's June ruling that Bean may not have had "wrongful intent" when she accepted the performance-based raise, which was about $2,000. Instead, the judge ruled, evidence suggests that Bean first denied herself the raise but reconsidered after consulting with then-County Attorney Renee Lee, who also took a 1 percent pay hike and lost her job over the deal.
Lee is charged with an ethics violation, and her case may provide an epilogue to this tale. A separate administrative law judge has ruled that Lee's legal opinion on behalf of the raise was a misuse of her public office and is recommending she be fined $5,000.
Her case goes to the Ethics Commission Sept. 7.
Lee advised Bean that the raise qualified as a benefit, which does not require County Commission approval.
The judge reasoned that Bean, 66, shouldn't be faulted for following poor legal advice. The ruling prompted the Ethics Commission to reconsider an earlier decision finding probable cause that Bean behaved improperly in administering the raise that eventually led to her firing in 2010.
At the time, Bean had been under fire for months from commissioners, who believed she poorly handled budget challenges after the economic crash. The Tampa Bay Times exposed in 2009 that Bean had covertly awarded her top six deputies pay raises ranging from 7 percent to 17 percent in 2007 as other employees absorbed pay freezes and layoffs.
The drama escalated when the commission said the "illegal act" gave reason to deny Bean $316,456 in severance pay.
A judge in a civil trial sided with Bean and the commission relented, voting 6-1 in March to pay her full severance plus $51,000 in legal fees on top of $191,000 already paid for unused sick and vacation time.
Dover activist George Niemann, who filed the ethics complaints against Bean and Lee, said he's disappointed but not surprised the panel followed the judge's recommendation to drop charges against Bean.
"Bean got away with unethical behavior by pointing fingers at the county attorney," Niemann said. "It's understandable that this would happen because of the way the laws are written. It's very difficult to prove unethical behavior."
Staff Writer Bill Varian contributed to this report.