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Hillsborough Commissioner White broke state law by voting, ethics complaint charges

TAMPA — Nearly two hours after a conservative blogger said he was filing an ethics complaint alleging that a vote by Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White was improper, White told county officials Friday that he had erred in voting and should have abstained.

The commissioner wants the board to vote again so he can record an abstention.

The commission voted 6-1 Thursday to sue White to recover legal expenses in a sexual discrimination lawsuit, with White casting the lone opposing vote. Taxpayers so far have picked up $425,000 in legal expenses stemming from the case.

The vote authorizes County Attorney Renee Lee to spend up to $25,000 to hire an outside law firm to seek reimbursement from White.

Although he appeared to have a clear conflict, White told a St. Petersburg Times reporter minutes after voting against the motion that he thought his vote was okay because Lee didn't say otherwise.

On Friday, though, White revised his story. By then, Chris Ingram, a 38-year-old political consultant from Tampa, had sent paperwork to the Florida Commission on Ethics accusing White of violating state law by voting against the motion to recover legal expenses from himself.

"He should have resigned a long time ago," Ingram said. "But it was his voting (Thursday) that prompted me to send the complaint. He should have abstained, that much is clear."

State law appears to support Ingram. It prohibits elected officials from voting on matters that benefit them financially.

Ingram didn't buy White's excuse on Thursday that he voted because Lee didn't tell him he had a conflict. "He doesn't need a lawyer to tell him that."

Ingram posted the filing on his political blog, at about 8:15 a.m., he said.

At 8:19 a.m., Ingram sent an e-mail blast announcing the filing to 5,898 recipients, included White. Ingram said 45 e-mails were returned because of invalid addresses, but White's was not among them.

At 9:59 a.m., White sent an e-mail to Lee telling her that he voted by mistake. He copied commissioners on it.

"It appears that I made an error in submitting a vote; I realize that the correct action would have been to abstain, just as I have in all prior votes pertaining to this matter," White wrote in the message. "Please advise my staff and me on a remedy for my mistake to change my vote from no to abstaining."

When reached by phone on Friday, White said he had been confused when he voted.

"It was just me hitting the wrong button," White said.

Asked if that meant he mistakenly pushed the "no" button when he meant instead to push the "abstain" button, White replied: "Yesterday, it was a blur. I don't know why. It was daunting."

He didn't return a later phone message asking if he changed his mind in response to Ingram's complaint.

Ingram said he won't withdraw his complaint, even if commissioners vote again and White abstains.

"That's a legal technicality that allows him to dodge his poor judgment," Ingram said. "What are we teaching our children? That it doesn't matter what you do because you'll get a redo later?"

It's unclear what comes next. Lee wouldn't return phone calls. White said he thinks the complaint vanishes.

"We'll correct the vote at the next board meeting," he said. "This (complaint) is going nowhere."

The ethics commission's deputy executive director, Virlindia Doss, said she can't comment on the complaint. But a professor of legal ethics said White's acknowledgement that he made a mistake in voting may sway the commission to drop the case.

"It doesn't mean there wasn't a transgression," said Robert Jarvis, who teaches ethics at Nova Southeastern University. "But they might decide he's shown remorse. It's not like he benefitted because the lawsuit against him has gone forward."

But Jarvis said his vote was such an obvious conflict of interest it should raise questions about his judgment with voters. He said not only should White not have voted, but he shouldn't have discussed the issue during the meeting. White is running for re-election this year.

"It's amazing he had any questions about this because it's absolutely clear he shouldn't have voted," Jarvis said. "If nothing else, it shows a lack of understanding of the ethics rule."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or [email protected]

Hillsborough Commissioner White broke state law by voting, ethics complaint charges 01/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 12:27am]
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