Attorney offers free help to recover legal expenses from Hillsborough commissioner

TAMPA — Hillsborough County tried to hire a law firm to sue Commissioner Kevin White in an effort to recoup expenses from his sexual discrimination trial last year.

The county got no takers, given the maximum $25,000 that commissioners said they were willing to spend on the effort.

Now a lawyer has stepped forward, saying he'll do it for free. And he comes with some bona fides.

Richard Harrison of the Allen Dell law firm was the lawyer who helped take Tampa General Hospital private in the late 1990s. He's been doing work with local government for much of his 25-year career and currently serves as an unpaid appointee to the county's land-use appeals board.

"I live here," Harrison said. "My family lives here. We pay taxes. Frankly, it seems like the taxpayers of Hillsborough County have already paid enough for this."

Commissioners will take up his offer when they meet Wednesday. Under his proposal, the county would be on the hook for only direct expenses, which are expected to be no more than $5,000.

A former aide to White successfully sued him and the county, saying the commissioner fired her after seven months on the job in 2007 because she refused his repeated sexual advances. A jury awarded the aide $75,000 in damages, but legal expenses in the case topped $400,000.

White has declined to contribute to those costs, arguing that county employees accused of wrongdoing have historically had their legal expenses paid. The legal costs in the case don't include what he paid for his own defense.

His refusal to pay has chafed commissioners and many in the public. So the rest of the board voted to sue him to get some money back.

White declined to comment Thursday.

Harrison said his firm initially considered bidding to handle the suit but figured that if, as expected, White puts up any fight, costs will exceed the capped $25,000 the county was offering. When no other firms stepped forward, Harrison decided to offer his services.

"As a matter of public service, it made sense for us to get involved," he said.

Harrison said the distinction between White and other workers is that the lawsuit involved his personal conduct, not his work as a county employee. A central allegation in the suit detailed a trip to Atlanta that, based on White's own account, had nothing to do with work.

White is already involved in another suit with an insurer that has declined his request to recoup his own legal expenses under a county policy while agreeing to pay a small portion of the county's legal bill. He has hired lawyer Michael Laurato of the Austin & Laurato firm for that effort.

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

Attorney offers free help to recover legal expenses from Hillsborough commissioner 05/27/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 28, 2010 12:05am]

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