Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

Hillsborough property appraiser fires HR director he had sent porn

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner admits he repeatedly sent pornography to his human resources director, a woman he fired Monday.

Turner said he fired Carolyn Filippone, a long-time employee of the public agency, for making false sexual discrimination claims about him to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a complaint that included his porn sharing.

That complaint was dismissed last month by the EEOC, according to records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, opening a window for her to file a lawsuit.

The property appraiser, up for election this year to a fifth term, said several aspects of Filippone's complaint — including that she was ostracized from co-workers for refusing his sexual advances — were false.

But in an interview with the Times shortly before Filippone's dismissal, Turner admitted to key components of the complaint that raise questions about his judgment.

Turner, 60, acknowledged that he dated Filippone for a short period some time after he was first elected — from late 2000 to perhaps early 2002, something he now calls a "personal mistake." The relationship runs counter to his office nepotism policy, which prohibits supervisors from dating subordinates.

Filippone, 49, says the relationship lasted off and on until 2006, according to her complaint.

She further contended that Turner later attempted to rekindle the relationship, in part by sending her dozens of emails containing graphic sexual images or links to porn sites and videos. Filippone said in her complaint that Turner also sent her a picture of his genitals.

"Their physical relationship was long over," said Steven Wenzel, an attorney for Filippone. "I would say from the email she received he was interested in reviving it."

Filippone declined to comment for this article.

Turner denied sending a picture of himself. But in the interview, he admitted sending her the emails with graphic sexual content and pornographic links. He said it was mutual, with both initiating pornographic exchanges while he was married and she was single.

They often communicated electronically after hours, though usually it was benign personal messages — goofy cartoons, pictures of puppies and the like, he said. But he also admitted sending porn for a period.

"From a personal standpoint, from a family standpoint, it was a mistake to do that. It's embarrassing," Turner said. "It was certainly not offending her.

He emphasized that what he characterized as porn swapping occurred during non-work hours and on personal cell phones or computers. Many of the more than 40 examples from November 2007 to February 2009 submitted as part of complaint were sent before 7:30 a.m., or on Sundays, and were sent from a personal email account.

The last batch went out a week after Filippone reported receiving the following email from Turner in February 2009: "Major problem at home. I will contact you asap. Donna (his wife) tracked your number to you. Blame me for anything."

Turner said the email was sent after Filippone sent him a series of texts that were "very graphic in nature" while he was at dinner with his wife. He said he didn't fully delete the text from his phone, and his wife found it. She was not happy, but Turner says no retaliation occurred against Filippone.

Most of the emails included with the complaint contain only links to porn sites or videos. Only a few times does Turner provide introductory commentary. "How about a fun workout later?" he asked while sending a link to an online porn gallery Dec. 18, 2008.

The prior month, she got an email from Turner asking, "Dont (sic) you have any private pictures to send me?"

"Good Morning! Hope you had a great Christmas," he says, along with a link to another compilation the next February that was part of a string of email porn referrals.

Filippone had previously worked with Turner at NationsBank, where he was an executive. Six months after Turner was elected, she was hired at the Property Appraiser's Office as an automation technician specialist at $17.95 an hour. She rose to training director two years later and director of human resources and training in 2003, according to her personnel file. She was making $98,009.

She was, and had remained, good at her job and received pay raises that reflected that and her increasing responsibilities, Turner said.

In Turner's account, their relationship occurred while he was undergoing a divorce from his previous wife and before he began dating his next. He remarried in July 2007.

Filippone filed her EEOC complaint in March 2010. In the complaint, Filippone said she was transferred to the property appraiser's satellite office in Brandon a month after Turner's wife discovered the text exchange and suggests it was at the wife's urging.

This is where Turner says her allegations turn to falsehoods.

Filippone characterized the transfer as banishment. She said she was not allowed to visit County Center in Tampa, where Turner's office is, without seeking permission. She said she was told not to attend social gatherings of office employees, including the funeral of a co-worker's spouse. Turner started deleting emails from her about business without reading them, she said.

"I was told that I was being banished from the County Government Center," Filippone wrote in her complaint, "and that I could not return to it even to perform my duties or to access it as a member of the public without the permission of a senior official."

Turner noted that Filippone's complaint came a year after the transfer. He said he had previously decided to move the human resources department and its personnel files, as well as his information technology employees and their equipment, to an area less vulnerable to hurricanes.

He said all of his employees based in remote locations are asked to inform superiors when they plan to visit County Center as a courtesy, in case someone needs to meet with them. His response to her complaint includes multiple emails from Filippone announcing a plan to visit County Center rather than seeking permission.

Turner said she has a permanent office downtown and in Brandon and visits regularly. His response to her complaint includes pictures of Filippone attending office social functions during the time in question, as well as a copy of her signature in the guest book at the funeral she says she was told to avoid.

And he said he regularly makes use of a function on his office email that allows him to preview contents without opening them and routinely skips those that don't concern him. He said all of Filippone's have been saved.

Most importantly, he said, the EEOC dismissed her complaint after a two-year investigation.

The EEOC's dismissal letter has no explanation. Elaine McArthur, outreach and training manager for the Tampa EEOC office, said the agency is unable to confirm or deny the existence of a complaint or share records from it.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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