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Pasco Sheriff White sought lawyers' help with budget appeal

Before Pasco Sheriff Bob White let them go, attorneys Mike Randall and Mary Anne Burke weighed in on everything from disciplinary hearings to illegal bingo to forfeiture settlements.

One issue they say they rarely touched: The budget.

Not so with the politically connected attorneys who replaced them in 2009.

Newly released legal invoices show that general counsel Jeremiah Hawkes and contract attorney Richard Corcoran have taken on an expanded role when it comes to the sheriff's budget, department reorganization and even the controversial immigration issue.

The invoices, which were requested by county administrators as part of their fight against White's budget appeal, show that:

• Corcoran provided legal and strategic advice on a budget appeal less than a month after White sent his proposed spending plan to the County Commission.

• White sought counsel from Corcoran on illegal immigration the same month he made robocalls to voters urging them to support Corcoran's bid for state House because he would be tough on the issue.

• The Sheriff's Office saved money when it replaced its legal staff, though a new hire outside the legal department picked up one of the former lawyer's responsibilities.

County budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said he requested the records on the legal department because the sheriff had used it as an example of his cost-cutting efforts.

"We just wanted to see how that was panning out," he said.

Corcoran, a former political consultant who won a state House seat this year, was hired on a contract basis, $150 an hour, up to $90,000 a year. His first invoice, on Jan. 5, 2009, was to analyze and evaluate the legal office. That was also Hawkes' hire date.

Corcoran began meeting with White's office about the 2010-11 budget back in February.

He billed White's office for 10 budget-related meetings in April and 18 in May, including a nearly 31/2-hour meeting to finalize the spending plan.

On June 22, "budget appeal issues and prep" was among the topics discussed with the Sheriff.

White floated the possibility of appealing his budget to at least one commissioner the following month but declined to commit publicly to an appeal until the filing deadline on Oct. 29.

Corcoran said the advice he gives the sheriff is strictly legal, not political. He said the appeal became an option early on as the sheriff committed to hiring new deputies for the struggling Holiday and Embassy Hills areas and the commissioners continued to ask him to cut his budget.

"The appeal would be discussed throughout the entire budget process," he said. "I would have advised him what things needed to be in the record should the commission not approve his budget."

Though White had tangled with commissioners over his budget in previous years, he'd never taken the unusual step of appealing the board's decision to the governor and Cabinet. No Pasco Sheriff had since Jim Gillum did so in 1989.

Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said that it's within White's discretion to ask his legal department for additional help on the budget, particularly as he geared up for an appeal. Early on, Pasco commissioners had asked constitutional officers to cut their budgets 5 percent because of the decline in revenue. (Commissioners ultimately approved a flat budget for White.)

"It's how the sheriff wants to use them," Doll said. "I think the sheriff is looking for a expanded role for them."

• • •

On several occasions, the role expanded to the hot-topic political issue of illegal immigration.

On May 27, Corcoran advised White about the controversial Arizona immigration law after deputies found drugs and guns in the home of two brothers here illegally from Mexico.

That day, White called a news conference where he advocated stricter laws on illegal immigration, wading into the national fray at the time over Arizona's law.

On Aug. 3, Corcoran had a meeting with the sheriff that included the topic of the Arizona law.

On Aug. 9 and Aug. 10, Corcoran discussed with White's office "e-verify," an Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States. That was the same month that Attorney General Bill McCollum, then running in the Republican primary for governor, began talking up a sweeping immigration bill similar to the Arizona law.

Also that same month? White left robocalls to House district 45 district voters, saying that he was fighting to keep illegal immigrants off the street — and needed Corcoran in the statehouse to help him.

Asked if there was a connection, Corcoran said "Of course not. The sheriff was fighting against illegal immigrants and their threat to Pasco County citizens long before I showed up at the office."

Doll said the sheriff asked Corcoran for help with e-verify because he had decided to implement it internally at the Sheriff's Office. Now, job applicants are also screened through that system.

He said that White had considered proposing an immigration-related ordinance at the county level but backed off when it appeared state legislators were taking similar steps.

"We weren't going to do something at the county level if they were doing it at the state level," Doll said. "The sheriff has made numerous comments about cracking down on illegal immigration with some of the crimes that have been committed here."

• • •

County officials requested the invoices as part of their effort to fight White's request to add $4 million to his $85.5 million budget, which largely would pay for 28 new deputies in west Pasco. The case could go before Gov.-elect Rick Scott and the Cabinet next year.

According to figures provided by the Sheriff's Office, the legal department's budget has shrunk: From $324,400 in overall expenses in 2007-08 to expenses of roughly $288,000 in 2009-10.

Those savings helped pay for a new narcotics detective, said Doll.

The changes began two years ago. That's when White terminated Randall and Burke, two veteran lawyers who started under Sheriff Lee Cannon, because the department was "going in a different direction."

At the time they left, the pair was making about $90,000 each.

White brought on Hawkes, a former general counsel for the Florida House of Representatives under Marco Rubio, for $85,000.

The sheriff also brought on Corcoran, an old friend who had served as chief of staff for Rubio and is also a close friend of state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Corcoran, who does not receive health insurance or benefits, billed for roughly $84,000 last fiscal year. His contract was renewed in October.

The office also saved money when a veteran secretary in the legal department, who had been making close to $52,000 a year, retired in August 2009 and was replaced by Jessica Porter, who made $34,000.

(Porter has since left to work as a staffer in Corcoran's legislative office, just down Little Road from the Sheriff's Office. Her replacement will make the same salary she did, said Doll.)

Burke, the former attorney, did have one duty that Hawkes and Corcoran do not: She handled the Police Athletic League, going to their monthly meetings and working with parents.

That duty was one taken over by Timothy Couet, a former campaign manager for Fasano, who was also hired Jan. 5, 2009, for $37,544. He filled a newly created public relations position, writing for the Sheriff's Office website and newsletters, and is the volunteer and outreach coordinator.

The Sheriff's Office spent nearly $55,000 to buy out Burke and Randall, both of whom started with the office in 1993. But it wasn't the last money that the office will spend on them.

Burke and Randall are two of six former Pasco Sheriff's employees suing the office for their dismissals. All six are claiming age discrimination and asking for unspecified damages.

The case, which began as a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, landed this month in federal court.

White's office denies all the claims. The case is being defended by another outside firm, Allen, Norton & Blue.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco Sheriff White sought lawyers' help with budget appeal 12/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 18, 2010 1:32pm]

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