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How do you trust your lawyer when she's lunching with the other side?

I am no lawyer. I don't even play one on TV.

But even without a law degree, I know this much: If you are a lawyer, going out to schmoozy lunches with the guy your clients are currently suing is not your best idea.

As if we haven't had enough shadowy stuff in Hillsborough County government lately, now comes Lunchgate. County Attorney Renee Lee, already under fire in give-yourself-a-raise and office- e-mail-snooping scandals that took down the last county administrator, is in another fine mess, this time involving a notorious former commissioner.

After Kevin White lost a sexual harassment case brought by an aide who said she was fired for refusing his advances, the county sued him for expenses. White, to absolutely no one's surprise, sued back.

Though she is the county attorney, Lee could not represent both the interests of commissioners and the interests of the then-commissioner they were suing. So a private lawyer stepped up to take it on for free, proving, given the latest news to rock this case, that no good deed goes unpunished.

Here's the Scandal Du Jour: Turns out Lee met with White for lunch, the county lawyer enjoying a nice chicken salad and a little office dish with the guy the county is suing.

Again, not a lawyer here, but I can look up Florida Bar rules on how they're supposed to act: RULE 4-4.2 In representing a client, a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer.

Lee insists there was no problem because she didn't talk county business with White. He says she did. A text message shows her commiserating with him over his latest negative news story related to the suit.

Commiserating! With the guy on the other side! That sounds bad, even without legal interpretation.

Worse: White's claim that Lee told him she didn't understand why the county was going after him. If true, how's that for undermining your bosses?

Lee has called the lunch "a boneheaded thing to do." We are way beyond boneheaded.

So why? Why on earth would she do this?

A public official gets a free vacation house from a rich constituent and his motivation is not difficult to decipher. But this? Friendship? Misguided loyalty? A complex conspiracy to take Lee down? A desire to be unemployed?

And does it matter? The lawyer went to lunch with the guy her bosses are suing.

Now a scandal-weary commission gets to untangle messy questions like whether she called White to get their stories straight or if she deliberately misled two commissioners to think she and White just happened to run into each other. Some will defend her. Some will want her gone.

How do you trust your lawyer after this?

Lee's contract says she can be fired for really bad stuff like committing a crime, but also for "flagrant neglect of duty." My dictionary says "flagrant" is "glaring, notorious, scandalous." That sounds like meeting up for a nosh with a guy locked in litigation with your bosses and empathizing with his plight to me.

I'm no lawyer, but there must be some fancy Latin legal term, some actus reus or ipso facto, that says to the rest of us, "Enough already."

How do you trust your lawyer when she's lunching with the other side? 05/26/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 26, 2011 9:20pm]

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