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Fired aide says Commissioner Kevin White actively pursued her

TAMPA — For months, Alyssa Ogden testified, she endured repeated sexual overtures from her boss, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White.

The overtures started just days into her job as an aide to White, when he lured Ogden, then 22, to Atlanta in the guise of business, she said, and asked to share her hotel bed. And it continued almost weekly, she testified Monday, as she rebuffed appeals for private kisses and out-of-town getaways with him.

Finally came lunch at an Outback Steakhouse, where White presented Ogden with what she said was an unexpected and poor six-month evaluation. Alluding to financial difficulties in her family, White offered to put the evaluation aside if she would "give him a chance" romantically, she said.

"He said, 'I know your situation,' " Ogden said through tears Monday as the civil trial opened in her sexual discrimination suit against White. "I can still be a d--- and fire you."

Ogden claims in her federal lawsuit that she was indeed fired a little more than a month later for refusing White's repeated sexual overtures. She is seeking at least $145,000 in lost wages, reimbursement for counseling and emotional harm.

Her accusations have dogged White, 44, a first term Democrat on the County Commission, for the better part of two years, since Ogden first made her claims in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

In opening statements in U.S. District Court, attorneys for White and Hillsborough County pointed to the timing of her allegations as central to their defense. They repeatedly noted that Ogden didn't file a grievance about the alleged sexual harassment until after she was fired.

White has denied making any sexual advances toward Ogden. He says she was fired for poor work performance that showed itself early and often, despite her assurance during her job interview that she was a hard worker and quick learner.

"It didn't happen," White's attorney, Steven Wenzel, told the jury of six women and two men. "And we'll prove that to you before this is over."

Hillsborough County, a defendant in the suit along with White, has already spent nearly $140,000 on outside counsel, a number that will spike with what is expected to be a weeklong trial. The attorney hired by the county to represent its interests, Claire Saady, asserted that the county shouldn't be held liable because it notified Ogden about how to report sexual harassment, but she never did so.

"The county had no knowledge of any allegation of sexual harassment," Saady said.

Most of the afternoon belonged to Ogden, who faces further cross-examination this morning.

Wearing a mustard-yellow sweater, dark slacks and high heels, and sporting a loose ponytail, her appearance stood in contrast to the woman White has said often dressed in inappropriate low cut outfits. She spoke in a quiet voice that occasionally cracked as her attorney, Ron Fraley, led her through a series of questions about her alleged encounters with White.

The trip to Atlanta, four days into the job, was central to the testimony. Ogden said White asked her to travel so he could introduce her to some "very influential people." But after lunch, shopping and dinner with Tampa businessman C. Blythe Andrews Jr. and White's uncle, Andre Moses White, she said, she developed misgivings about whether she had been brought on a legitimate business trip.

Then, in the early hours of the next morning, Ogden said, White showed up at her door, saying the hotel was booked and asking to share her bed because he didn't like to sleep alone. She said she refused, but let him sleep in the room's second bed as she lay awake.

"After that, I was very scared," Ogden said. "I started thinking of potential scenarios that could take place."

White left the room later and she rode back with him to Tampa in a recreational vehicle owned by Andrews. But Ogden said the hotel encounter stirred feelings of distrust that she developed as a young girl when she was molested by her father, who killed himself when she was 14.

Back in Tampa, Ogden said she weathered repeated requests from White to "give him a chance," and suggestions that if she would he could advance her career. She related remarks by him about her breasts and underwear, requests for kisses and remarks made about the physical appearance of her sister.

The remarks came mostly in private moments, she said, including after sporting events attended with White, in a County Center elevator, and once during a memorial service for a slain sheriff's deputy.

Wenzel pointed out several discrepancies in Ogden's accounts from pretrial testimony. He also highlighted events she is relating now that haven't come up before, such as the alleged threat at the Outback restaurant.

He argued that Ogden was in Atlanta at the request of Andrews, then 77, the chairman of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper. She has acknowledged that Andrews asked her to be his "companion."

Times staff writer Kevin Graham contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Fired aide says Commissioner Kevin White actively pursued her 08/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 8:26am]
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