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Death (of a career) with dignity: the not-so-messy breakup with Renee Lee

It could have been ugly. Pricey, too.

It could have been a dragged-out, bare-knuckles brawl over whether the Hillsborough County attorney should be fired without a dime after a string of spectacularly bad moves — her finale being lunching with the enemy.

But miracle of miracles, they compromised. They managed to come together for what is hopefully the County Commission's last act of sweeping the place clean — severing ties with Renee Lee.

Their lawyer was already teetering on the edge for giving a legal opinion approving a secret raise for top employees including, now that you mention it, herself, and for questions on whether she told the truth in an e-mail snooping investigation.

As in many a relationship, it came down to broken trust.

Lee had been out lunching with former Commissioner Kevin White — yes, the guy a federal jury said sexually harassed his young aide, and, yes, the one costing taxpayers six figures in legal bills.

He's also the guy the county is suing to get back some of that money and the guy suing the county, also known as Lee's bosses.

Though an outside lawyer is on White's case for the county, Lee is still the county attorney. And your lawyer's job is to watch your back.

Lunching with the guy on the other end of your lawsuit and raising all sorts of speculation as to what you talked about definitely does not sound like watching your back.

Lee says she only meant empathy for a down-on-his-luck ex-colleague, and maybe she did. A good heart does not make a bad act any less "boneheaded," as she put it.

And the embattled Kevin White? He comes across as a man in free fall only too willing to grab anyone to take down with him. For once, he was not the worst guy in a news story. He says Lee talked about the case and questioned why the county (her bosses) was going after him. Lee says he lied. Thank you, commissioners, for ending what was sure to be many months of he-said, she-said.

So it came down to whether they would fire Lee for cause, meaning she would not get a year's salary on her way out the door, or without, meaning she would. No severance, her lawyer said, and see you in court.

That meant another long, expensive legal battle and many, many more headlines.

But there's that itch that says: If what happened here isn't cause for firing, what is?

In the end, everyone acted like grownups. They did not bend to an impassioned promise of outrage in the black community. (This was about Lee's judgment, not her race.) They negotiated and settled on half a year's salary, an amount everyone agrees would have been easily spent fighting Lee in court, like water down a hole. Thanks, but taxpayers have had enough of that.

Even with Commissioner Mark Sharpe convinced she should be fired for cause and Commissioner Les Miller on her side, it was unanimous. Lee even thanked the commission for her years there.

And lesson learned about county contracts: no more contracts in which an employee must basically burn down an entire city before it's "cause."

So it was a bad breakup that ended with some dignity — swift, practical and just. You actually got the sense the commission wanted to get back to the business of doing the county's business, and wouldn't that be nice?

Death (of a career) with dignity: the not-so-messy breakup with Renee Lee 06/02/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 3, 2011 12:02am]
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