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Black community leaders rally around embattled Hillsborough County attorney

Gerald White, a community activist and longtime employee of Tampa Electric, carries his first protest sign to a commission meeting: “Commissioners Keep Renee Lee County Attorney.”

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Gerald White, a community activist and longtime employee of Tampa Electric, carries his first protest sign to a commission meeting: “Commissioners Keep Renee Lee County Attorney.”

TAMPA — Three top county appointees' jobs were reportedly on the chopping block.

Onlookers filled the Hillsborough County Commission boardroom to see in person what they'd been hearing about in the news: a scandal at County Center.

Among the spectators came a couple dozen African-American professionals, most of whom sat quietly and watched and were not meeting regulars.

"It was unprecedented," said Gerald White, 46, a black community activist and longtime employee of Tampa Electric. "And it was the most natural reaction from leaders in a community that you could ever hope for."

Renee Lee, 57, the county attorney for six years, didn't deserve to be fired, they thought. As the highest-ranking black employee in county government, it seemed to them that she had always carried herself as a professional.

Now, she was being accused of acting unprofessionally.

It didn't make sense to this group.

"The African-American community has a tremendous amount of respect for this commission and for the county attorney, Renee Lee," White told commissioners during the meeting. "We love her. We respect her. And we want her to continue as our county attorney."

A week earlier, White was moved to carry his first protest sign to a commission meeting: "Commissioners Keep Renee Lee County Attorney," it said on green poster board.

• • •

According to the accusations, Lee wrote a legal opinion saying that she and County Administrator Pat Bean were eligible for a 1 percent raise in 2007.

Jim Barnes, 62, the county's internal auditor for three years, unearthed the previously unknown raise. He was a man whose work had been called into question several times by commissioners.

Bean, 64, and Lee both refunded the raise after it came to light.

But Barnes said Lee threatened to get him fired as a result — a charge Lee denies.

After that flap, came another accusation: Lee and Bean had snooped through Barnes' e‑mails. Bean admitted ordering the e-mails, but claimed she never looked at them.

Lee has said her office never accessed Barnes' e-mail, except to fulfill records requests from members of the public. She says her office never initiated the e‑mail searches.

Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who has been critical of Barnes, said Lee did give her messages from Barnes' account, but said Lee did it to be helpful.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has since taken all the documents into evidence. And someone has filed a Florida Bar ethics complaint against Lee.

Last week, both Lee and Bean were suspended for 90 days with pay.

• • •

Community activist Janee Murphy said she doesn't usually like to talk with the newspaper about her views on topics like this. But Lee's situation makes her want to speak.

"For us in the black community," Murphy said, "we look back and say, 'Why? Why should we be suspending Renee Lee?' Renee has not been found guilty of doing anything wrong."

It's not that she thinks Lee is being targeted based on her race.

Most of the black leaders who spoke to the St. Petersburg Times said they don't think Lee's race has much to do with her situation. But they do want to support a strong leader from the black community if they believe she's being unfairly attacked.

And here's how it breaks down in Murphy's mind: Bean admitted ordering the e-mails. Even before the raise issue, commissioners questioned Bean's judgment and performance on other issues. Likewise, Barnes has come under fire for his job performance several times during his short tenure.

Until now, Lee hasn't had those issues — an argument that Lee's attorney, Chinwe Fossett, made to commissioners last month. Commissioners have always given her good performance reviews.

"If we all sit back — even women — and allow this woman to be tried and convicted," Murphy said, "we know that can happen to us."

Gerald White has one more objection to add, one more explanation for the groundswell of support behind Lee. It has to do with the messenger.

"We don't expect any folly from her," White said. "And we don't see any folly from her. She has just constantly and continuously delivered. … And all of a sudden this guy whose record doesn't beat the test raises all these questions. That's what makes you lift an eyebrow. It takes that kind of disparity to really get people to just get up."

• • •

Samuel Wright, student ombudsman at the USF and first vice president for the Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP, has been watching Lee's situation from afar.

He's known Lee professionally for 35 years.

She's a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a leading sorority for black women, and a volunteer with the Links, a service organization also led by black women.

She is one of a handful of local black leaders whose names have made headlines in recent memory for stories they'd probably rather not see in print.

There was Renee Benton Gilmore, 52, who quit as chief executive of the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance amid accusations of extravagant spending by her agency. And, of course, Kevin White, 45, a county commissioner whose run of bad press, some argue, has strengthened his political following.

Still, Wright said his worry is not that all black leaders are being unfairly judged. There are plenty who haven't gotten any press at all — good or bad — not to mention the white leaders who have come under scrutiny for their job-related actions, too.

Each case needs to be examined separately, he said.

But in Lee's case, Wright said, the jury should still be out.

"We all have to be accountable — black white or whatever — we all need to be accountable for our actions," he said. "I just think we want to be judged by the same standards. … Everyone should have due process."

Based on what is publicly known now, he said, the most Lee should get is a reprimand.

• • •

Kevin White, Hillsborough's lone black commissioner, has made several references to his own legal troubles during meetings about the administrative shakeup, mostly insinuating that he knows what it's like to be falsely accused.

During the March 17 meeting, when Commissioner Al Higginbotham moved to suspend Lee alone, White questioned the motion.

"I don't know what the undertone of that is," Kevin White said.

"Kevin, this is by no means racially motivated," Higginbotham said.

"Racism," someone in the audience said aloud.

The motion died for lack of a second.

From the audience, Gerald White couldn't help but think the faces in the audience had an impact.

"They didn't have to speak that day," he said. "Just their presence there was that voice."

Times staff writers Bill Varian and Ernest Hooper contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Black community leaders rally around embattled Hillsborough County attorney 04/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 3, 2010 12:12am]
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