TAMPA — An investigation into stealth pay raises and allegations of e-mail snooping at Hillsborough County Center has found no criminal wrongdoing.
State Attorney Mark Ober said he could see no grounds to pursue charges against former County Administrator Pat Bean or current County Attorney Renee Lee in a report released Friday.
The long-awaited review concluded Bean showed questionable judgment in awarding herself and Lee 1 percent pay raises in 2007 without seeking county commissioners' permission. So, arguably, did Lee in blessing the raises with a legal opinion that preceded the salary hikes.
"These questionable decisions, however, are not criminal acts," Ober wrote.
Bean greeted the ruling with relief from her South Tampa home late Friday. She said the allegations had cast a stain on her 33-year career in county government that she is now happy to see removed.
Commissioners fired Bean in June after a year of strife at County Center that they blamed on her poor management. But it was the stealth 2007 raise that they cited as justification in terminating Bean for cause, denying her much of a $455,000 severance package she was otherwise owed.
"First of all, I feel vindicated," said Bean, who has spent part of her spare time as a baby-rocking volunteer in the neonatal intensive care unit at Tampa General Hospital. "It makes me feel better that the truth is out and someone has investigated it thoroughly."
Bean and her attorney declined to discuss whether she plans to sue the county to recoup her severance or other damages.
The review did not provide a clean bill of health for the county, or for Lee.
Investigators found a lack of guidelines for how the county recognizes its top managers with incentive-based pay raises. No policies spell out who qualifies, and how.
And in this instance, the raises for Bean and Lee managed to bypass commissioners even though they're supposed to set the administrator's and attorney's salary.
Furthermore, Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents concluded Lee may have lied by inventing an anonymous public records request to snoop on the criminal investigation. Ober found the allegation could not be proven without reasonable doubt.
Lee could not be reached for comment, but her attorney, Eddie Suarez, said it was not uncommon for her to receive anonymous public records requests.
"It's is not unusual when someone is serious about maintaining anonymity to go directly to the county attorney," he said.
The report further suggests that it was Lee who planted the pay raise idea, before she was asked for a legal opinion on whether they could accept it.
"I think it provides closure in part," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who called for the probe when the allegations were raised in an internal audit. "There's certainly some things administratively we need to look at, so I wouldn't call this case quite closed just yet."
Commissioners ordered an internal review of administrative salary changes after a St. Petersburg Times story revealed Bean gave her six top deputies raises in 2008, even as other county employees got pink slips. Their internal auditor then discovered the 1 percent pay raises that had come a year earlier.
The auditor, Jim Barnes, who has since been fired, accused Bean and Lee of later sifting through his e-mails to keep track of his work.
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.