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Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner not cleared of sex harassment

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner has held up the dismissal of a sexual discrimination complaint against him as vindication he legally did nothing wrong in sending porn to a subordinate.

Lawyers who focus on labor law, including the one who represents his accuser, say the finding does not mean Turner was cleared in the episode, which was first reported by the Tampa Bay Times this week.

Indeed, a dismissal form issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission April 18 states as much.

"The EEOC is unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes," it reads. "This does not certify that the respondent (meaning Turner) is in compliance with the statutes."

What the letter ultimately does is notify Carolyn Filippone, the former human resources director for Turner who filed the complaint, that she's free to sue him.

And labor lawyers say that, by firing Filippone this week, Turner has exposed himself to a new charge of discrimination.

"Absolutely," said Tampa employment lawyer Tom Gonzalez, who said it is "potentially retaliation."

"She's protected from retaliation provided she had the basis for a good-faith belief that she had been harassed," he said.

The admission by Turner that he sent Filippone dozens of emails with pornographic images or links to porn sites, and her termination after the Times asked him about it, has been the talk of the town this week. Residents by the score have asked how his actions would not be considered sexual harassment.

"I cannot believe the EEOC dismissed her complaint," said Ruth J. Anderson, a retired equal employment opportunity officer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission now living in Homossassa. "I've never heard of them dismissing something like that."

Even lawyers involved with the case don't know the answer. That's because the EEOC does not explain itself in its finding.

The agency simply issues a standardized, one-page form, checking one of seven possible findings in a letter that informs the person who filed the complaint of his or her right to sue.

The finding in this case is the most common one issued by far to complaints nationally, according to EEOC statistics. In only 4 percent of cases does the agency find probable cause against the accused.

The EEOC does not confirm or deny specific complaints or comment on them.

Filippone filed her complaint in early 2010. She said she and Turner dated for years while both were single. After a 2006 breakup, she says Turner, who remarried in 2007 after a prior divorce, repeatedly asked her to have sex. She said he made inquiries about her breasts and sent her dozens of pornographic emails.

The emails included graphic depictions of sex acts and close-up pictures of sex organs.

Filippone says she was banished to a Brandon satellite office after Turner's wife discovered some of his text messages to her. She says she was cut off from Turner and her peers and told not to attend coworker social functions.

Turner admitted dating Filippone but says the relationship ended in 2001 or late 2002, when he started dating his current wife. And he says he did send Filippone pornographic emails, but said it was a mutual exchange that she initiated as often as he did. It happened during nonwork hours and on private accounts, he said.

The texts his wife discovered, he said, were sexually explicit images sent by Filippone to him.

Most everything else in her complaint is untrue, Turner said, which is why he said he fired her. He has said dating Filippone and later sending her porn was a "personal mistake" but not a reflection of how he has operated as an elected official.

"As a former public official, I hope that his view of propriety in dealing with subordinates is not widely shared," said Steven Wenzel, Filippone's attorney, who was once vice president for employee relations and legal affairs at the University of South Florida.

Wenzel said he believes investigators may have dismissed the case because his client filed it more than 300 days after the last email was sent. Complaints filed under this section of federal law cannot be based on information that old. So what remains is largely a he-said, she-said case, Wenzel said, and the EEOC dismisses most such cases.

Turner's attorney says that does not make sense. The agency could have dismissed the complaint much earlier if investigators felt Filippone filed it too late.

"Only the EEOC can explain its reasoning. But if they felt that this was all too old, it does not seem likely they would have spent two years investigating," said Karen Buesing, with the firm Akerman Senterfitt. "They did a very thorough investigation."

In her response to Filippone's complaint, she noted that the emails and texts were more than a year old. And she argued that courts have found that employees cannot allege harassment when they are willing participants in the same behavior.

Wenzel said his client was never interviewed in the EEOC investigation. Turner said he was.

Rich McCrea, a Tampa employment lawyer who has worked on several high-profile cases, said old allegations can be considered in a sexual harassment claim if they demonstrate a pattern leading up to more recent unwanted behavior. At the same time, someone likely would have trouble alleging harassment for something they are doing, too.

As far as Filippone's firing is concerned, it could be rolled into a lawsuit as evidence to buttress a claim of retaliation, he said.

Wenzel said his client has not made a decision yet on whether to sue Turner. She has until mid-June to sue under the same laws that the EEOC considers. Or she could make a different legal argument and take longer.

Turner's office has already spent $17,454 in public money defending him in the investigation. Taxpayers likely would be further on the hook for his defense in a lawsuit, lawyers said.

In a sexual harassment suit involving former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, legal costs for the county, White and his accuser approached $600,000. Taxpayers paid most of it.

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

Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner not cleared of sex harassment 05/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 24, 2012 10:57am]
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