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Hillsborough auditor reports two county offices reading his e-mail

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's internal auditor says someone has been improperly and possibly illegally snooping through his e-mail.

Jim Barnes released a report Thursday, tracing multiple instances of e-mail trolling to the offices of County Administrator Pat Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee. Both were the subject of a critical audit last year about questionable raises they had received.

Indeed, Bean acknowledged late Thursday that she instructed a staffer to pull a swath of Barnes' e-mails, after reading news accounts about his audit that contained surprising details. But she said she later thought better of the request and never read them.

"I guess I was feeling at that point in time like I was under seige," Bean said. "When you feel like you're under siege, your first reaction is not always your best."

Barnes' report indicates that someone in Lee's office also reviewed some commissioners' e-mails, including those pertaining to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement inquiry into the pay raises.

Two county commissioners were angry, saying that if what Barnes says is true, the matter is cause for termination.

Government officials' e-mails are open to public inspection, but Florida law includes an exemption for audits in progress. Barnes says as many as 6,000 e-mails, written from July to November 2009, were accessed, although he can't be sure if any exempt material was compromised.

Lee denied she or anyone else in her office accessed the e-mails of Barnes or commissioners on her behalf. She said any records requests — and there were many at that time — would have come from someone else. Her office simply complied with the request.

She said she didn't know who had made the requests. A log does not include how the public records requests related to Barnes originated.

"I rarely see these requests," Lee said. "I personally have never made any requests for any commissioner's e-mail in my entire career."

Commissioners who had reviewed the report Thursday expressed grave concerns and said they were eager to hear how Bean and Lee respond. Barnes said they had not answered inquiries for his report. Bean said she had been busy with other pressing demands.

"I'm hot," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who was among commissioners whose e-mails were reviewed. "It reeks of resignation material."

He said that while he fully supports the public's right to review county records, including commissioner e-mails, he would be surprised if top county officials engaged in surreptitious "fishing expeditions."

Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who asked for an FDLE inquiry into 1 percent raises Lee and Bean received in 2007, also said he will seek answers.

"At a minimum it's an egregious violation of personal trust," Beckner said. "At worst it appears to be an attempt to obstruct or influence an investigation by the FDLE."

He said he will seek to hold anyone found to have violated the law or board policy accountable, "up to and including termination."

Beckner initiated the FDLE inquiry in October after Barnes' uncovered 1 percent raises Bean gave herself, Lee and several other top county officials without board approval. The raises came as the county was undertaking cutbacks due to sagging tax revenues. The report came after the St. Petersburg Times divulged steep pay raises Bean handed out to her top deputies.

Barnes' report highlights at least three questionable instances of staff-initiated e-mail reviews that can be traced to Bean or Lee's office.

• Days after Beckner's request, someone on county staff initiated a search using Beckner's name and the keyword "FDLE." Two similar keyword searches were done in early February by employees in both the county attorney and information technology offices, days after the FDLE requested that such information be restricted from disclosure.

• County Animal Services director Bill Armstrong, who reports to Bean, on Nov. 3 requested e-mails from Barnes' office using the keywords "animal services" and "hcas." His office was undergoing an audit by Barnes at the time.

• Computer logs that document when someone accesses county employees' e-mails show that on Nov. 9 someone obtained five months' worth of e-mails from Barnes and his staff, dating back to July 2009. At least five other searches of Barnes' e-mail were done on other dates, the report indicates.

"There's no footprints in our system of who did it and why they did it," Barnes said. "But none of this was going on, as far as I can see, before the pay raise issue."

Bean said has she never sought information about the FDLE inquiry. And she said she has talked to Armstrong and the employee who filled his records request. They separately indicated that Armstrong only had requested e-mails Barnes had sent him about the audit in an effort to refresh his memory of outstanding issues to address as part of the audit.

Bean said she can't recall the specifics in news stories that led to her seek Barnes' e-mails.

But the accounts led her and some of her top staff, she said, to wonder who had global access to employee e-mail and her staff asked her if she wanted to see what those people had been looking at.

She said yes. But after having second thoughts and consulting an attorney she hired to deal with the FDLE inquiry, she said she decided not to look at the e-mail.

"I can take a lie detector," Bean said. "Was it bad judgment to even request it? I could say yes. But I was feeling hung out to dry."

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough auditor reports two county offices reading his e-mail 03/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 5, 2010 12:15am]
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