TAMPA — Two top Hillsborough County officials find their jobs in peril this week after being accused of e-mail snooping by a third.
A majority of the county's seven commissioners say they find portions of the explanations offered in response to the charges against Administrator Pat Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee implausible. Some of those commissioners say jobs could be on the line if a report issued Thursday by internal performance auditor Jim Barnes proves true.
Barnes ac-cuses people in the offices of the county administrator and attorney of surreptitiously combing through or downloading archived e-mails to and from his three-person office. Some include confidential information shielded from disclosure by state or federal law. He says he was never notified of the inquiries, as required by a county policy.
Bean has acknowledged requesting a batch of Barnes' e-mails — as many as 6,000 of them, Barnes said — last year. But she said Friday in a prepared statement that she had her staff seek the computer files only after they informed her that Lee's office also had pulled a large volume of Barnes' e-mails.
She said that after getting the files, she thought better of the request and never opened the files or read "a single word" that they contained.
"She's saying she didn't inhale," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has previously called for Bean to be fired over what he considers ineffective leadership. He repeated that call Friday.
"She's saying, 'I saw that they were doing something wrong and I did it, too. But I didn't look at it,' " he said.
Lee said Friday that any attempts by her staff to obtain Barnes' e-mail came in response to records requests from the public, and not her. She noted state law allows people to make those requests anonymously and without explanation, and there is no requirement that she keep a record, although attorneys on her staff do track some requests.
Some commissioners noted Lee's office routinely notifies them when members of the public seek records that pertain to them, as required by the county's administrative code.
Barnes said he wasn't told of the requests in question, leading him to believe they were done internally and may have been politically motivated.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he also does not believe his office was told of searches of his e-mails, which were also highlighted in Barnes' report. Those queries included the search term "FDLE."
The requests came shortly after Beckner sought a Florida Department of Law Enforcement inquiry into 1 percent pay raises Bean gave herself and Lee, raises awarded without commission knowledge in 2007.
Barnes exposed those raises late last year.
"This is an extraordinarily serious situation," Beckner said. "There's a lot of explaining these individuals are going to have to do."
Commissioner Al Higginbotham has requested a discussion of Barnes' report for the board's March 17 meeting, saying, "Everybody's dancing around. Let's get the facts out so the commission can make a decision. This has got to stop."
Commissioner Kevin White said, "I don't believe for one minute" that Bean requested Barnes' e-mails and didn't look at them.
"I think both people involved knew exactly what they were doing, and on the surface it looks like they were trying to cover up something."
White added that any staff-generated search that could have interfered in an investigation will be grounds for dismissal.
There has been bad blood among the county's three top appointed officials for months now. And Bean and Barnes have both been under scrutiny by commissioners.
Barnes' report says the e-mail trolling began after he issued his report in September detailing the 1 percent raises Bean gave herself and several of her top assistants just as the county was beginning cutbacks due to falling tax revenues.
That report came out as commissioners were threatening to cut Barnes' staff, saying his office had produced too few audits and those he had done were sloppy.
Shortly after, Sharpe said Barnes told him of a meeting he had with Bean and Lee. During the meeting, Barnes told Sharpe, he was threatened by one of them that they would "bring him down."
Barnes confirmed the story, though he did so reluctantly, saying he doesn't want it to taint his most recent report on the e-mail inquiries. He said it was Lee who made the threat, using the words "We're going to see that you're fired."
He said Bean didn't participate in the threat or in any way appear to join in it.
Lee denied that allegation Friday.
"I never said that to him," Lee said. "Barnes is a liar."
Barnes said he began looking into who was perusing his e-mails after a January workshop during which he faced more criticism from commissioners over the limited output of his office. During the Jan. 13 meeting, Commissioner Rose Ferlita brought out e-mails from one of Barnes' assistants that suggested he was conducting personal business on county time.
Sharpe suggested afterward that Barnes get to the bottom of who was leaking information from his office to ensure that his work is not being compromised. His staff could find no record that Ferlita had made a request for Barnes' staff e-mails, raising questions about who had provided the information.
Ferlita did not return a call to her cell phone Friday.
Bean has faced her share of unflattering headlines in the past year highlighting not only the raise to her self, but much bigger sums given to her top six deputies as the county was in the midst of layoffs.
Commissioners also directed her to come up with a plan for what she plans to achieve in her final two years in office after faulting her for weak and less-than-open leadership.
She and her staff have repeatedly assailed Barnes' work.
Bean has said she sought Barnes' e-mail in part out of a feeling of being "under siege."
Barnes' latest report came out just days after he received a blistering peer-review that found his office does not comply with accepted auditing standards.
The drama could not come at a worse time for commissioners. They are struggling to fill a more than $50-million shortfall in tax revenue. They are also preparing to ask voters to trust them to raise the sales tax by a penny to pay for road and transit work, including a new rail system.
Meanwhile, a citizen's group is seeking signatures for a ballot initiative that would ask voters to replace Bean's administrator job with an elected county mayor.
"She's not doing her job," Sharpe said. "This instance affirms that what we need is a professional manager who is consumed with serving the public, not protecting their backside. She feels under siege? Welcome to government. We're all under siege."
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.