TAMPA — Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White says County Attorney Renee Lee called him to get their stories straight about a controversial April luncheon they had.
And that conversation was overheard by a lawyer when White put the call on speakerphone, said his attorney, Michael Laurato.
Laurato said White made that and several other potentially inflammatory claims during a sworn deposition this week. The deposition was taken as part of a lawsuit in which White and the county are suing each other over who should pay legal bills for his 2009 sexual harassment case.
Commissioners are calling for an explanation from Lee for why she socialized with someone the county is suing. At least two of them believe she has changed her story, as they recall it — first telling them that the April 8 lunch at Roy's restaurant in West Tampa was a chance encounter.
Lee did not return a phone call Thursday seeking comment.
She was already on the hot seat for her role in a secret pay raise she and former County Administrator Pat Bean got. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement also has said that she may have lied about how she came into possession of e-mail files of auditors who unearthed the raises.
Laurato said that during testimony Wednesday, White said Lee had called him when a reporter began asking questions about their get-together. At the time, White happened to be in the office of criminal defense lawyer Ronald Cacciatore.
"Mr. White testified at his deposition … that Ms. Lee called him and he answered the phone on speakerphone," Laurato said. "Ms. Lee said we need to get our story straight about this."
It's not clear why White was meeting with a criminal defense lawyer, and Cacciatore did not return phone calls for comment.
It's also not clear how that call jibes with text messages between the two that Laurato disseminated earlier this week. In one, April 18, sent by Lee after a television news story about the luncheon, Lee says she didn't tell anyone she had "bumped into" White as the broadcast indicated.
"I decided early on that there was no reason to lie," she wrote.
In any event, Laurato claims that the speakerphone call was one of "numerous" conversations between the two since February, or maybe January, that took place by phone or text message. In them, Lee made sympathetic statements about White's plight, Laurato said.
He claims that Lee told his client she didn't understand why the county was pressing its case against White since he has said a ruling against him will force him into bankruptcy, resulting in the county getting nothing. One one occasion, he said, Lee offered her assistance.
"There was a reference that she would try to help out however she could," Laurato said. "This is my paraphrasing of his deposition testimony."
A transcript of White's testimony has not been prepared yet, and it was not possible to verify Laurato's depiction.
White left office in November after getting trounced by two opponents in the Democratic primary when he sought re-election.
A year earlier, a federal civil jury found White sexually harassed former aide Alyssa Ogden by firing her for refusing his sexual advances. The county amassed nearly $500,000 in legal bills, including a $75,000 award to Ogden.
An insurance policy covered a small portion of the costs and commissioners are trying to get White to pay some of the roughly $425,000 balance. White, meanwhile, is suing the county and the insurer to cover about $155,000 in bills from his own attorneys.
The county has retained outside counsel to handle its side of the suit, with lawyer Richard Harrison taking the job for free. He declined to comment about Laurato's depiction of White's statements.
Laurato has blasted the luncheon and conversations, saying it was not proper for the county's top attorney to meet with his client without White's attorney present. That's particularly so since Lee broached the topic of a recent home purchase by White that could be seen as a financial asset relevant to the case.
He said Thursday that he may seek to have Harrison removed from the case because of the possibility that Lee was sharing information with him.
Harrison said he has not talked to Lee about the case, using another lawyer in her office as a point of contact. He said he has no indication that Lee is shaping the direction he has received.
"The feedback from the county has been, 'Go get him,' " Harrison said.
He noted that a transcript of the deposition will offer more relevant testimony, including White's assertion under oath that he didn't sexually harass his aide, despite the jury's ruling.
The story of the luncheon between Lee and White was first reported in a political insider column of the trilingual newsweekly La Gaceta. Owner and column author Patrick Manteiga told the St. Petersburg Times that White showed him text messages from Lee leading up to the luncheon asking about his home purchase and empathizing with him over stories scrutinizing the deal.
He said White asked him, and Manteiga agreed, to swing by the restaurant that day to witness the lunch, saying White didn't understand why the attorney wanted to meet with him.
In addition to running the newspaper, Manteiga is a political consultant and operative who has often defended White against critical stories in other news outlets.
Manteiga says the Times misquoted him acknowledging they had set Lee up.