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Commissioner White doesn't look good in pretrial testimony

TAMPA — The lawsuit accuses him of sexual discrimination.

But pretrial testimony in the case against Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White raises other claims that show him in a less than dignified light.

Many of them are voiced by former aide Alyssa Ogden, who filed the discrimination complaint. But even some of White's own testimony raises questions about the judgment of a man who holds the public's trust.

The nuggets range from her assertion that he sought to angle his way into a prospective real estate deal in his district to his admission that he unleashed his private security firm to dig up dirt on her.

Regardless of the outcome, the case will leave a trove of records for White's political adversaries.

"That's just the nature of discrimination cases, particularly harassment claims," said Tom Gonzalez, a management-side labor lawyer who has done work for local government. "Even if you get a defense verdict, you leave a lot of things out there in the public that are with you forever.

"Even when you win, you don't always win."

The intrigue began with an April 2007 trip to Atlanta, where Ogden, then 22 and four days into the job, claims White asked to share her hotel bed.

White, a Democrat who was 42 at the time, has repeatedly denied the allegation. His defense: He says he was merely facilitating a romantic rendezvous between Ogden and C. Blythe Andrews Jr., the 77-year-old chairman of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper, at their request.

Ogden and Andrews both deny that.

"That's laughable on its face," said Andrews' attorney, Barry Cohen. "It's untenable and it's ridiculous."

Whatever the arrangement, White acknowledges that he booked separate flights for himself and Ogden out of Tampa so as not to attract attention. And he told her not to tell anyone she was traveling with him.

His explanation is that she wasn't traveling with him, but rather going to Atlanta, where they both happened to be meeting with the same people.

"Why do you tell her not to tell anyone that she was going with you?" White was asked by Ogden's attorney, Ron Fraley.

"Because I thought it would be inappropriate if anyone thought she was going with me," White said.

A few moments later, he's asked why he was concerned about scrutiny.

"Just the appearance of — yeah, absolutely of me traveling with — with a female aide alone," he said.

White acknowledges that he picked Ogden up in a rental car when she arrived in Atlanta, then drove her to a restaurant for a group lunch.

"You weren't worried about the appearance once you were in Atlanta because you didn't think anyone would be around to see it or scrutinize?" Fraley asked.

"I'll agree with that," White responded.

At the restaurant, which Ogden said was a diner, she and White caught up with Andrews; White's uncle, Andre White, who is a principal of the Sentinel Bulletin newspaper of Georgia; and one other woman.

All three men are married. Ogden didn't recall the other woman's name. Andre White has testified that he believes her name is Pat but said he couldn't recall her last name.

"I always have a pretty young lady with me," he said.

Ogden recalls that her boss and Andrews referred to her by a nickname: "Something like Godzilla. (They) thought she was very unattractive."

In the more than 1,000 pages of deposition transcriptions, the purpose of the trip beyond socializing isn't made clear.

But at some point during lunch, Ogden has testified, there was a discussion about a possible real estate deal involving an apartment complex. Andrews is part owner of the complex, the Tampa Park Apartments, once part of a larger proposal to redevelop the neighborhoods east of downtown Tampa.

Ogden says her boss was interested in the transaction.

"I knew he wanted Mr. Andrews to sell it in hopes to get a piece of the change," Ogden said.

White has denied that in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, and questioned why so much attention is being given to Ogden's claims in a followup interview last week.

"There is no evidence presented on the record, no corroboration whatsoever for any of her allegations," he said, otherwise referring questions about the suit to what he is reported saying in his deposition.

White's uncle, of Stone Mountain, Ga., has testified he had lined up a prospective buyer and confirmed that the topic likely was discussed during lunch. Andre White said he was hoping to make a commission if the deal went through.

Kevin White is a former Tampa police officer and City Council member in his first term as a commissioner. He already faces opposition in the 2010 election from former Democratic state Sen. Les Miller.

Miller declined to comment in detail about the more titillating aspects of Ogden's suit, saying only that the whole thing is "unfortunate" for the families of all involved. But he said Ogden's depiction of the alleged Tampa Park discussion was "interesting.

"The question that comes to my mind, then, is if this is a business deal, why is the aide there?" Miller said. "And how does Kevin come into play when he has no interest other than his relation to Andre?

"I can't put that together."

The group later went shopping and had dinner at a steakhouse. Andrews said he picked up the tab for both meals.

"I had to pay for everything," Andrews told White's attorney, Steven Wenzel. "All of them were broke, including your client, okay?"

• • •

Ogden's suit alleges that White fired her for refusing his repeated sexual advances during the seven months she worked for him. He would repeatedly ask her to "give him a chance," she claims.

The suit also names Hillsborough County as a defendant.

White denies it all, saying Ogden was fired for poor work performance that included her alleged failure to engage in and understand major issues affecting his district, which includes central and east Tampa.

Recent mediation attempts ended in an impasse, according to court files.

When questioned by White's and the county's attorney, Ogden admits she never complained of discrimination until she was fired. She testified that she didn't know who to tell and was afraid of White and his family.

She claimed she once attended a lunch at Donatello's she believes was arranged to intimidate her. She says it was attended by White; the uncle from Atlanta; White's father, Gerald White; and Andrews.

During the lunch, she claims the older men talked about being known as the black Mafia in Tampa. Andre White, the uncle, was later asked about it during his deposition.

"I don't care to talk about that," he responds three times.

"I don't know anything about that," White told the Times.

Ogden has faced questions from the county's lawyer about her sex life and pictures of her on both her and her mother's MySpace pages. White confirmed in his testimony that he once used his private security firm to do a background check on Ogden.

"There was nothing pro or con," he said, describing what he found.

Ogden also concedes that she has no witnesses to most of White's alleged advances. But her attorneys have produced two women who claim they also were subjected to unwanted flirtation from White. One is Ogden's sister, Krystal Ogden. The other is White's former Tampa City Council aide.

Nichelle Johnson, the former aide, said White made a handful of comments she thought were inappropriate.

"Initially, he used to say things like, 'You want me,' or 'You think I'm sexy,' or things like that," Johnson testified. "'When are you going to leave your man for me?' "

Johnson said she ignored the comments, which eventually stopped, and acknowledges she applied for Ogden's job after she was fired and filed suit against White.

Krystal Ogden, who occasionally joined White and her sister for lunch, claimed that her sister often shared stories of her boss' alleged advances. She said she was the subject of at least one uncomfortable remark.

Once, at the Bamboo Club, she said White beckoned her to sit with him and said her pants were "very form fitting." He asked her to turn around and give him another look, but she said no.

Ogden's attorneys also do their part to undermine White's credibility.

They rehash the 2006 accusations that he bought $6,100 worth of tailored Italian suits with campaign money. In a disclosure report, he listed the expenditure as payment for consulting from "Robbins Consulting."

Actually, the payments were made to the address of a home formerly owned by Robert U. Robins, owner of Robins' BC Men's Wear.

White settled a Florida Elections Commission case by agreeing to pay $9,500 in fees. But he has not previously publicly admitted his intent to deceive.

Under questioning from Fraley, Ogden's attorney, he is asked: "I mean, were you hoping when you wrote those checks to Robbins Consulting that if someone looked at the checks they wouldn't connect them with purchases of clothes?"

"Yes," White responds.

Staff writers Justin George and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Commissioner White doesn't look good in pretrial testimony 05/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 2:42pm]

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