An administrative law judge is recommending that an ethics charge against former Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean over a stealth pay raise she got in 2007 be dismissed.
That recommendation indicates a controversy that preoccupied County Center for the better part of two years is coming to a close, with Bean winning almost every round — except the one where she lost her job.
Dover activist George Niemann, who filed the complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, alleged that Bean had misused her office by awarding the performance-based 1 percent raise to herself and then-County Attorney Renee Lee. The raises played a role in the ousters of both, with commissioners citing it as part of their justification for firing Bean in 2010.
"I'm very disappointed in the ruling," Niemann said Monday. "I truly believe that what she did was unethical, regardless of whatever technicalities her lawyers used to get her off."
The administrative law judge said that in order to prove Bean misused her office for personal gain, it had to be shown she willfully and corruptly — meaning with "wrongful intent" — obtained the raise. The judge said the evidence in the case failed to show she authorized the raise, which amounted to about $2,000.
Bean had been under scrutiny for months by commissioners who faulted her handling of budget challenges resulting from the economic downturn. In mid 2009, the Tampa Bay Times revealed that she had quietly awarded her top six deputies pay raises ranging from 7 to 17 percent in 2007 as other employees weathered pay freezes and added duties, or were laid off.
Commissioners asked their then-auditor to look into the raises. He discovered Bean and Lee separately had gotten 1 percent raises around the same time without the board's approval. County commissioners set the salary of the administrator and the attorney.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement looked at the raises but concluded it could not be proved that crimes were committed, which the administrative law judge, William F. Quattlebaum, noted in his recommendation.
He also noted that Bean initially didn't include herself among the employees she awarded the raise, which was part of an effort that year to thank directors who had submitted reduced budgets. She has said she then received a note from Lee in which the attorney opined that she herself qualified for the raise. So did the administrator because both had cut their budgets, Lee wrote.
According to Quattlebaum's ruling, testimony in an April hearing indicated that Bean's top deputy, Wally Hill, turned the matter over to a benefits manager in the county's human resources department. That employee asked for and received a legal opinion from Lee in which the attorney said both qualified for the raises because their contracts said they were entitled to any benefit for which other county employees were eligible. The raises, as an employee incentive, were a benefit, she said.
Subsequently, human resources employees enacted the raises. The judge said there was no evidence showing Bean asked for or approved her own.
The judge noted that both Bean and Lee were under contract with the County Commission. The county's charter specifies that commissioners set the salaries of both, yet Bean had never sought the board's approval of the raises. The judge said Lee had provided an opinion saying the raises were a benefit.
"Once the county attorney issued a written legal opinion stating that the salary increases were available to contract employees as would be any other benefit made available to other employees, (Bean) had no obligation to refer the matter to the (County Commission) for approval," Quattlebaum wrote.
A separate administrative law judge is reviewing a similar ethics complaint against Lee. Earlier this year, the Florida Bar dismissed a complaint filed with it alleging Lee should not have issued an opinion on a matter that affected her financially.
The administrative law judge's recommendation about Bean will go back to the ethics commission for a final ruling. A hearing is scheduled for July 27.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.