TAMPA — A second former aide to Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White told a judge Thursday that she was punished for rejecting an invitation to socialize outside of work.
But U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara ruled the testimony won't be heard by the jury in White's sexual discrimination trial. He deemed the testimony prejudicial to White's defense against charges by former aide Alyssa Ogden, who says he fired her for rebuffing his repeated sexual advances.
Belinda Allen, 55, who was White's aide from November 2006 to mid March 2007, said her former boss once asked her to accompany him on a weekend shopping trip to New York. She said she declined.
Allen said when she reported to work the following week her job duties were taken away. No more writing letters, opening correspondence or meeting with White. She said she could think of no explanation other than her refusal to join him in New York.
Two weeks later, she quit to rejoin Tampa City Council member Tom Scott as his aide.
Allen's appearance was a surprise. An attorney for Ogden said he learned of her experience through another lawyer Thursday.
Travel is a big theme in Ogden's lawsuit. Ogden, then 22, says White made his first pass at her during a trip to Atlanta.
She claims White coaxed her to join him on what was billed as an overnight business trip. Instead, she says she spent her time dining and shopping before White asked to share her hotel bed.
Ogden claims White made several travel proposals in the following months and she declined. He denies all of her claims.
The judge's refusal to admit Allen's testimony was one of White's few victories Thursday. He spent much of the day getting grilled by Ogden's attorney.
Ron Fraley won permission to ask White about pleading guilty in 2007 to elections law violations for spending campaign money on Italian suits and masking the purchases as consulting fees.
Lazzara allowed the testimony to rebut White's assertion the day before that he has led a law-abiding life. White had said he has "never, ever been accused of even spitting on the sidewalk as far as these types of allegations are concerned."
"That's a little more than spitting on the sidewalk," Fraley said to White.
"That doesn't have to do with sexual harassment," White said.
Fraley marched from there to a harsh recounting of White's defense, with particular focus on the April 2007 Atlanta trip.
White claims Ogden asked to join him after getting invited by C. Blythe Andrews Jr., then 77, chairman of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin. White was meeting Andrews in Atlanta.
He has said he introduced Andrews to Ogden a little more than a week earlier and believed they had developed a fast and mutual romantic attraction.
White says he agreed to buy Ogden's plane ticket at the request of Andrews, who reimbursed him. He said he witnessed Andrews hand Ogden a large sum of cash and buy her as much as $1,200 in clothing. Andrews, he has said, regularly invited him to restaurants and always picked up the tab.
And in saying he didn't try to share a hotel bed with Ogden in Atlanta, he has said he believed Ogden actually was staying in Andrews' room.
"Mr. Andrews is a very influential and powerful man in this community who is hard to say 'no' to," White said.
The twice-weekly Sentinel Bulletin targets African-Americans and its endorsements are courted by politicians.
Fraley asked White how a "normal, moral person" could agree to such an arrangement between his newly hired aide and a much older, married man. He asked how he could watch in silence as Andrews handed her money and bought her clothes.
"I don't know the definition of a normal, moral person," White said.
White acknowledged some discomfort with Ogden's presence in Atlanta, but said he was mainly concerned with looking like he was traveling with a young woman. As far as he was concerned, Ogden and Andrews were consenting adults.
"It's not my job to judge morality, to legislate morality," he said.
The exchanges grew increasingly testy.
"Are there any limits to what you would do for power and influence? What are your limits?" Fraley asked.
"I don't really understand. I don't think I can answer that question," White said.
"Each time you thought it was inappropriate, but you did it anyway, right?" Fraley asked.
"It wasn't illegal," White said.
White's attorneys did knock holes in Ogden's case Thursday.
County Human Resources Director George Williams said he met with White three times to review his reports of Ogden's work deficiencies. Williams said she never claimed harassment before she was fired.
Another aide, Cedric McCray, said he had to pick up the slack for Ogden's shoddy work. He said he never saw any of the inappropriate behavior Ogden claims of White.
The case is expected to go to the jury today after closing statements.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.