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Hillsborough commissioners ask about County Attorney Renee Lee's severance

County Attorney Renee Lee has called her lunch with former Commissioner Kevin White, whom the county is suing, a “boneheaded” lapse in judgment.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times (2010)

County Attorney Renee Lee has called her lunch with former Commissioner Kevin White, whom the county is suing, a “boneheaded” lapse in judgment.

TAMPA — It's deja vu all over again at Hillsborough County Center.

For the better part of a year, commissioners wrestled with how to get rid of former County Administrator Pat Bean. A majority thought she should go, but they choked on severance terms in her contract that guaranteed Bean a nearly half-million-dollar payout if fired without adequate justification.

In an ominous note for embattled County Attorney Renee Lee, at least two commissioners have confirmed they are seeking a legal opinion on the meaning of the severance terms in Lee's contract.

They aren't as favorable for Lee as they were for Bean.

A majority of commissioners say they want a decision on Lee's future with the county to be made expeditiously. Commissioners are scheduled to talk about it Thursday.

"Hopefully, she'll come to some decisions by herself maybe and relieve everybody of their misery in that way," said Commissioner Sandy Murman.

• • •

Like Bean, Lee is guaranteed a year of pay, but only part of future benefits, if fired without cause. Though paid nearly as much as Bean at $212,722, the value of her benefits is not nearly as much since she has been with the county just seven years.

Lee's current estimated payout: $233,813, according to the county human resources department.

But Lee has a contract that appears to give commissioners broader justification to fire her without paying her anything. Bean's contract specified that to deny her severance commissioners had to find she committed a crime or other illegal act that benefited her personally.

Lee's contract, which was extended to Aug. 6, 2014, two years ago, says she can be terminated without a payout if "convicted" of certain crimes, if she loses her license, if she takes another office, but also for "flagrant neglect of duty."

Clearwater-based labor lawyer Ryan Barack said he does not believe "flagrant neglect of duty" has accepted meaning under the law.

Tampa-based labor lawyer Tom Gonzalez, who works often with local governments, agreed. "I do think it's much more broad than the provisions in Pat Bean's contract," Gonzalez said.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the one unequivocal voice on the board calling for Lee's termination, said he believes that's a wide enough opening to deny Lee severance given recent circumstances. "Flagrant means obvious to anyone, including a first-year law student," Sharpe said.

• • •

The board is scheduled to have a discussion Thursday on whether to ask the Florida Bar to look into the circumstances surrounding an April lunch Lee had with former Commissioner Kevin White. The discussion could prove wide-ranging.

Lee, 58, the county's top legal adviser, has acknowledged she had lunch with White, with whom the county is locked in a bitter lawsuit. The county and White are fighting over who should pay legal bills from a 2009 federal court verdict that said White discriminated against a former aide by firing her for refusing his repeated sexual advances.

Florida Bar rules prohibit a lawyer representing a client in a legal dispute from discussing the issue in question with the client's adversary without that person's lawyer knowing about it.

Lee says the lunch was an innocent get-together with a former colleague (White lost a re-election bid last year). She said the case was not discussed. She notes that she is not even involved with the lawsuit since the county hired outside counsel to take it on because of her conflict while he was still in office.

But she has also called it a "boneheaded" lapse in judgment. She didn't know White would have a newspaper publisher stop by to witness the lunch.

Lee did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

Two commissioners, Chairman Al Higginbotham and Kevin Beckner, have said Lee told them the luncheon happened after a chance encounter. She says that was a misunderstanding.

White's lawyer, Michael Laurato, has since released text messages between White and Lee that show the lunch was indeed planned, as she now says she has always stated it was. Laurato has also suggested the meeting breached the Bar's legal ethics because he was not alerted even though the texts show Lee had been asking White about his purchase of a new home in Riverview.

Laurato said that information is relevant to a case in which the county is seeking to recoup legal expenses from White, who has said he doesn't have money to pay them.

• • •

Sharpe has focused on one text message in particular from Lee, in which she responds to White asking her why she wants to know about the house. Lee told White that either her office or the outside counsel hired by the county to handle the case is aware of the purchase, though it was a week before it was reported in news outlets.

"The litigator got a report somehow but no problem," she wrote in the message. "Are you my neighbor? I live off Riverview Dr."

Sharpe said his research showed Lee's meeting with White without his lawyer present violates accepted legal norms. Alerting him to information the county has that could be relevant to its lawsuit against White was "egregiously bad judgment," he said, even a "treasonous act."

"It would be in the best interest of all if this were concluded on Thursday," Sharpe said. "It would be in the best interest of all if it were concluded before Thursday, but I don't control that."

No other commissioners are speaking as firmly. But within the past 15 months, two sitting commissioners, Higginbotham and Ken Hagan, have said Lee should be fired. Their rationale: repeated poor decisions.

Lee was entwined with Bean in some of the key issues that led to Bean's dismissal. Commissioners had blasted Bean for awarding herself a 1 percent pay raise that had been given to other county executives as a recognition for making budget cuts. They cited the raise as reason to deny her full severance, since the county's charter and state law say commissioners set the administrator's pay.

Commissioners also faulted Bean for seeking a copy of e-mails to and from auditors who unearthed the raises, though she said she never looked at them.

Bean said she accepted the raise after getting an opinion from Lee, who also got the pay hike, that said it was okay. Lee said the raises were essentially benefits that were open to other employees. She noted that both their contracts entitle them to any benefits offered to other county workers, even though this was a raise that permanently changed their salaries, not a bonus.

Bean told commissioners she only sought the auditors' e-mails after hearing Lee had gotten them. Lee read them and shared choice bits with a commissioner critical of the head auditor.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators subsequently wrote that Lee likely lied to commissioners when she said she saw the e-mails only after her office fulfilled an anonymous public records request. State Attorney Mark Ober, however, concluded it could not be proved that Lee lied.

Commissioners suspended Bean and Lee with pay as they initially looked into the raises and e-mail claims. They fired Bean last June but allowed Lee to return when civic leaders in the black community rallied around one of the Tampa Bay region's top African-American government officials.

The Florida Commission on Ethics and Florida Bar are both still reviewing complaints about the raises and e-mail trolling made against Lee.

Higginbotham and Hagan declined to say whether they still feel Lee should be fired. They said they want to hear from her first. But each said they are troubled by the latest allegations.

"I do have grave concerns that there is a pattern of poor judgment on Ms. Lee's part," Hagan said. "That being said, I want to get all the facts and hear from our counsel before making a final decision."

Higginbotham and Sharpe have both said they asked outside counsel Richard McCrea to be prepared to discuss the severance provisions in Lee's contract.

Beckner said he is most troubled that Lee changed her story about the lunch meeting to him. While he has asked himself whether his memory could be faulty, he said he is feeling more confident given that Higginbotham and a television reporter both have said the same thing.

"That certainly raises more questions in my mind about what really happened and the motivation behind what happened," he said.

Murman said she thinks Lee at least should be suspended with pay once again while commissioners figure out what happened and how to proceed. Commissioner Victor Crist, while concerned with reports about Lee's actions, said he wants to hear the facts directly from the players before casting judgment.

Attempts to reach Commissioner Les Miller, the board's lone African-American member, were unsuccessful. Recovering from back surgery, he phoned in during an impromptu discussion of the issue by commissioners Wednesday to urge them not to take any action until he returns.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough commissioners ask about County Attorney Renee Lee's severance 05/30/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 30, 2011 10:52pm]
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