Monday, May 21, 2018
Politics

Appeals court upholds ethics finding against Renee Lee

TAMPA — The ethics case against former Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee is coming to a close.

An appellate court has upheld a finding by the Florida Commission on Ethics that Lee misused her public office by issuing a legal opinion that led to her and former County Administrator Pat Bean receiving a 1 percent pay raise in 2007.

The decision by the 2nd District Court of Appeal was issued without comment May 24, with each member of the three-judge panel concurring.

Lee did not return a phone call seeking comment. But her attorney in the matter said the ruling will likely end Lee's effort to have the ethics decision overturned.

"Obviously we're very disappointed that the court ruled the way it did," said Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron.

Lee has about two weeks from the date of the ruling to seek a rehearing. But Herron said he doesn't anticipate it.

The ethics commission voted 6-1 last September to reprimand Lee and fine her $5,000, following the recommendation of an administrative law judge who found Lee put her own interests above the public's. Once the time for seeking a rehearing passes, that finding will head to Gov. Rick Scott for final disposition.

Former county performance auditor Jim Barnes revealed the secret pay raises awarded by Bean's office several months after they took place. Bean had initially awarded similar raises to department directors who had recommended ways to trim their office budgets that year.

Lee ultimately provided a legal opinion saying that she and Bean also were eligible for the raises since they had cut their own office budgets, even though, as appointed officials, their salaries were set by the county's seven elected commissioners. Lee said the raises were basically like benefits awarded to other employees and, under their contracts, she and Bean were eligible. Commissioners were in the dark.

The raises — Lee's was about $1,700 — were ultimately cited by commissioners as justification to terminate the contracts of both Bean and Lee. Lee negotiated the terms of her exit in June 2011.

Bean faced a similar ethics complaint, but a judge found that while she may have exercised poor judgment, she did the proper thing by seeking Lee's opinion.

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