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Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White can only blame himself for facing lawsuit, HR experts say

TAMPA — The 2-year-old sexual discrimination lawsuit against Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White is expected to go to trial today.

It will be up to a federal jury to decide whether White fired former aide Alyssa Ogden in 2007 for refusing his multiple alleged sexual advances. White's reputation and thousands in tax dollars are on the line.

One thing is hard to argue, say human resources specialists asked about the case: White put himself in position for such a claim to be filed.

And that's just based on his own version of a fateful trip to Atlanta.

It is in Atlanta that Ogden claims the first of many sexual advances took place. And it is on this allegation that much of the pretrial testimony has focused.

White has denied making a pass at Ogden during the trip. But he has offered a bizarre defense: He merely helped facilitate a romantic rendezvous between Ogden and a much older political benefactor who had taken an interest in his new hire and would be meeting them in Atlanta.

"If he did stay with her, I can't tell you how many ways that that's wrong," said Margaret Morford, president of the HR Edge Inc., a management consulting business in Brentwood, Tenn., that advises companies on personnel issues.

But construing the case in the best light for White, "To facilitate a tryst is a really bad idea," Morford said. "County commissioners aren't in the tryst business."

Ogden was 22 at the time, hired in April 2007 by White over what he acknowledges were more qualified candidates. White, a Democrat, was 42 and married, elected to the job the prior November and seeking to fill out his staff, picking Ogden to help get her started on a career.

Day 2 on the job, Ogden says, White asked her to accompany him to Atlanta that Thursday to meet some influential people. They flew in separate planes.

They met in Atlanta and joined White's uncle, Andre Moses White; Tampa businessman C. Blythe Andrews; and another woman for lunch and dinner, with shopping in between.

In the early morning hours of the following day, Ogden claims White showed up at her hotel room, dialing her first on her cell phone, claiming the hotel was booked and asking to stay with her. Once inside, she claims White asked to share her bed.

"He said, 'I just don't like to sleep by myself — I'm an only child,' " Ogden has told the St. Petersburg Times. She says she refused, that White took the other bed in the room, then left some time later.

White denies he ever showed up at Ogden's hotel room and her other claims, saying she was fired seven months into the job for poor work performance. Neither he nor his attorney returned phone calls for this article.

Cell phone records confirm a pair of calls from White to Ogden shortly after 2 a.m. the morning in question. White has testified he was merely checking in on her while either at or driving to his uncle's house to stay the night.

The Times consulted three human resource specialists who agreed Ogden's claims are problematic, if a jury believes them.

"I just think any superior who has any kind of relationship with a subordinate, I say you need to have their head examined," said Tom Gonzalez, a management-side labor lawyer in Tampa who works regularly for local governments.

If things go sour, he said, one side or the other can more easily seek to exact revenge by claiming harassment or discrimination.

But each said White's own account also raises substantial red flags.

White claims Ogden learned on her own that he was traveling to Atlanta to catch up with Andrews socially and asked to go along. What's more, he says Andrews, the then 77-year-old chairman of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper, offered to reimburse him if he would secure a plane ticket for Ogden.

White says he introduced Andrews to Ogden a little more than a week before she started working for him, while dropping off an application outside the office of her former employer. He said Andrews took a romantic shine to Ogden and told him he believed the interest was mutual.

So when Ogden asked to go on the trip, according to White, he has testified, "I told her she was an adult and I had no part of that, and she could do whatever she felt was right."

Andrews has denied White's account.

White says he left Ogden in Andrews' care after dinner in Atlanta while he went out clubbing by himself. He says he called Ogden so late to check on her welfare after not hearing from her as he had expected.

Asked why he didn't tell Ogden from the start that he didn't think her presence on the trip was a good idea, White says, "I don't know."

But it definitely was not a good idea, said Morford.

For one, brokering such a get-together for an influential businessman while serving as an agent of the government raises ethical concerns, she said.

"The second thing he's guilty of is incredibly bad judgment," Morford said. "And people get fired all the time for incredibly bad judgment."

As a general rule, workplace superiors should be very cautious about how they interact socially with subordinates, said Gonzalez, the Tampa lawyer.

If it was a legitimate business trip, that's one thing, he said. People help advance their careers by traveling on business assignments and the gender mix of those traveling together shouldn't matter.

"The world has come to a point where you cannot have any significant social interaction between a subordinate and a supervisor, whether it's consensual or not," Gonzalez said. "From an HR perspective, I think someone would counsel against that sort of involvement."

Craig Pratt, a human resource management consultant who co-wrote Investigating Workplace Harassment: How to be Fair, Thorough and Legal, says there are too many ways things can be misconstrued when bosses and their subordinates meet socially.

People can hear the words from a supervisor differently than if someone else was saying them. Age differences can further exaggerate the issue.

That said, Pratt said he had a hard time swallowing how White has described what took place leading up to the Atlanta trip.

"When I confront people over issues like this and they construct an explanation that doesn't make sense at a fundamental level, my first thought is, 'Is this just a way for them to avoid responsibility,' " he said. "This just has that kind of ring to it."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White can only blame himself for facing lawsuit, HR experts say 08/16/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 16, 2009 11:13pm]
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