TAMPA — Former Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean told a judge Thursday she never intended to include herself in a series of controversial 1 percent pay raises awarded in 2007.
She said it wasn't until then-County Attorney Renee Lee asked to be included and issued a legal opinion saying it was okay that Bean agreed to accept it.
"It didn't come up at all until County Attorney Renee Lee filed her request," Bean said.
Her attorney told Circuit Judge James M. Barton II that because Bean sought such legal guidance, county commissioners had no right to deny her severance when they used the raise as grounds to fire her more than two years later.
"She didn't authorize it," said the lawyer, Thomas Roehn. "She accepted it."
Bean testified for nearly two hours Thursday in a nonjury civil trial in which she is attempting to force the county to pay her $315,565 — a year's salary plus the value of a year's worth of benefits. She is seeking tens of thousands more in interest and attorney fees, which would take the cost of the case well past $400,000 if the county loses.
An attorney for the county told Barton that Bean was well aware that only commissioners could approve a pay raise for her and Lee under the county's charter and state law.
Richard McCrea said Bean chose to hide behind a legal opinion "less than a page long" and "dubious on its face" in secretly awarding herself the raise.
Bean, 66, spent seven years as county administrator after more than two decades in lesser roles with county government. Commissioners fired her in June 2010, citing the raise as the highlight in a series of poor decisions.
The raise, commissioners said, triggered a provision in her contract that allowed them to deny her severance for committing an "illegal act" for her own benefit.
Bean handed out the 1 percent pay raises in early 2007 as a reward to high-level county employees who had cut spending in their departments.
A day after issuing the awards, Bean testified, she got a note from Lee thanking her. Lee noted that she had submitted a slimmed-down spending plan for her office and also was entitled to the raise.
The former administrator, who had also trimmed the budget in her office, said she never thought to include herself or Lee in the pay raises. Both she and Lee reported directly to commissioners under contracts that spell out their salaries.
But after receiving the note, she said she asked then-deputy Wally Hill and an employee with county's human resources department to get a legal opinion from Lee on eligibility.
Lee wrote that they both were allowed the raise because it was essentially a benefit. And both had clauses in their contracts entitling them to any benefits offered to other employees.
Commissioners learned of the raises two years later after their auditor discovered them.
Under cross-examination from McCrea, Bean acknowledged she had misgivings about accepting the 1 percent raise. And she agreed that she never consulted commissioners. She said she refunded the money when commissioners started asking questions.
"When the board expressed concern, I decided I didn't want any part of this," she said.
Both sides will submit closing arguments in writing, which are not due for at least three weeks. Judge Barton will rule later.
His ruling may rely partly on the definition of "illegal act" as it was used in Bean's contract. Barton asked several questions about the term Thursday.
Roehn said past court cases make clear that an illegal act must involve a finding that Bean committed a crime. Her contract said she could be fired if she commits a felony or other crime involving moral turpitude, or an illegal act for personal gain.
State Attorney Mark Ober concluded that a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation of the pay raises failed to show a crime could be proven. Part of his justification was that Bean had sought legal guidance.
McCrea said criminal conviction was not required. He said the raise violated both state law and the county charter, something Bean clearly would have known.
"We believe illegal act means the plain dictionary meaning," McCrea said.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.