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Hillsborough county attorney leaves after commissioners agree to severance deal

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee was dismissed Thursday after striking a deal that gives her half a year's pay and benefits in return for leaving without a fight.

The deal means that Lee will get a payout equal to half the $298,703 value of a year of pay and benefits, including unused sick and vacation time. Commissioners approved the deal 7-0.

Lee left the commission chambers through a back door and declined to comment.

She had come under fire again late last month after it was alleged that she had lunch twice with former Commissioner Kevin White. The county is suing White for legal expenses related to a sexual harassment case.

Lee's attorney, Robert McKee, called it a fair outcome under the circumstances. McKee said he believed Lee was entitled to a full year of severance if fired, but she signed the agreement to avoid a costly legal fight with no guarantee of a payout.

And it was clear the board wanted to cut ties.

"She's a realist," McKee said. "You can sit in the meeting and count noses."

Some commissioners called it a good, if not perfect, resolution.

"I believe this agreement allows this county to decisively close this matter," Commissioner Ken Hagan said.

Deputy County Attorney Don Odom will replace Lee on an interim basis. Commissioners said they will discuss the search for a full-time replacement soon.

The departure in many ways adds to ongoing fallout from White's 2009 sexual harassment case, which cost him his job in a re-election defeat and has cost the county close to $600,000 in legal bills and now a severance check.

The resignation came after Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham met Thursday morning with Lee, McKee and a county-hired lawyer to negotiate the terms of her departure.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe initially moved to fire Lee and pay her nothing. That motion failed to earn enough support to bring it to a vote.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner said the lunch meetings and changing story about one were the latest in a series of poor decisions by Lee.

"Is the circle of trust we shared strong enough to maintain my support for you as our county attorney?" he asked. "The answer to that is no."

Commissioner Ken Hagan then proposed that Higginbotham meet with Lee and the lawyers to devise a softer exit.

Lee tried to make amends before voting got started.

"I deeply regret the appearance that I have done something wrong, and I apologize," said Lee, who was county attorney for seven years.

She also disputed White's account of their lunch conversations, which emerged in a deposition last week.

Lee referenced only one lunch and said she initiated it as a kind gesture to a former commissioner going through tough times.

She said she told him nothing that compromised the county's case involving White, despite his claims otherwise.

"These are bare claims and assertions that are made by the former commissioner and intended to take the focus off of his circumstances and to discredit me," Lee said.

White and the county are locked in a lawsuit about legal bills. A federal civil jury found in 2009 that he discriminated against a former aide by firing her for refusing his repeated sexual advances, awarding the woman $75,000.

The county wants White to pay some of the $425,000 it spent on the suit that was not covered by an insurance policy. White has said he owes nothing and wants the county or its insurer to pay a $155,000 bill for his lawyers.

While Lee has acknowledged only an April 8 lunch at Roy's restaurant near International Plaza, White claims in the deposition that there was an earlier meet-up in February or March. And he said Lee discussed the case during both get-togethers and in phone and text messages.

He said Lee expressed disbelief that commissioners are pressing their lawsuit against White. White has also provided copies of text messages from Lee in which she asks him questions about the purchase of a new home. She tells him that the "litigator" for the county is aware of the purchase.

The lunch at Roy's was reported in the weekly newspaper La Gaceta after White invited its publisher to stop by and witness it. Commissioners Higginbotham and Beckner said Lee initially told them she was having lunch with a friend when they ran into White, who joined them.

Lee, 58, served a 90-day paid suspension starting in March 2010 while commissioners looked into allegations that she and former County Administrator Pat Bean took secret pay raises and trolled the e-mails of auditors who revealed them.

The auditors had shown that Lee provided an opinion blessing the 1 percent pay raises in 2007, though commissioners never authorized them as required. Bean later admitted seeking copies of their e-mail. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded Lee likely lied when she told commissioners she looked through them only after her office responded to an anonymous public records request for them.

Commissioners cited both allegations in firing Bean last June, but allowed Lee to return when community leaders rallied around her.

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

Hillsborough county attorney leaves after commissioners agree to severance deal 06/02/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 2, 2011 11:49pm]
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