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Hillsborough commissioners to assess claims of top-level e-mail snooping

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan wants a quick resolution of the e-mail snooping allegations swirling around the county's top three appointed officials.

Hagan has scheduled a board discussion for Wednesday on a report from internal performance auditor Jim Barnes released last week. It accuses employees of County Administrator Pat Bean and County Attorney Renee Lee of secretly going through e-mails of Barnes and his two employees.

In what could portend bad news for one or all of the appointees, on Monday Hagan also asked for copies of their contracts. The contracts spell out Bean, Lee and Barnes' pay, benefits and the terms under which they may be fired.

"In a nutshell, we need to put an end to this nonsense and move on and do what's best for the county," Hagan said. "I'm still going over everything. I'm reviewing their contracts and the auditor's report. I'm considering what's the best and most effective way to put this behind us."

Hagan would not talk about how he hopes to resolve the matter. But moving up the discussion ramps up the urgency to do so.

Last week, Commissioner Al Higginbotham pushed for a similar discussion, but not until March 17. He could not be reached Monday.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Kevin Beckner confirmed Monday that he has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to examine whether any laws were broken in the alleged e-mail trolling.

In Barnes' report, released Thursday, he said that he had uncovered multiple occasions in which employees who report to Bean and Lee accessed and possibly downloaded his office e-mail. The searches coincided with a report by Barnes saying that Bean had given herself, Lee and several other top employees 1 percent pay raises in 2007 without board permission.

Beckner had already asked the FDLE to look into the raises to see if any laws had been broken. His request on Monday would expand that inquiry to include the e-mail searches.

Barnes says in Thursday's report that the employees who searched the e-mails sought information about the FDLE investigation and may have accessed information about his audit work that is not yet public record.

"If there were individuals trying to obstruct an FDLE inquiry, that's something that interests me and them," Beckner said.

Bean could not be reached Monday. She has acknowledged receiving a copy of Barnes' e-mails but says she never read them.

Lee released a brief formal response to Barnes' report, in which she writes that it was "riddled with inaccuracies." In a letter addressed to commissioners but not Barnes, she said that neither she nor anyone from her office independently requested Barnes' e-mails or records about the FDLE inquiry.

She said that any searches for e-mails or information about the FDLE inquiry were done in response to "third-party" requests. She said a more detailed response is coming.

As for the discussion scheduled for Wednesday, Lee said in a phone interview that she welcomed the review.

"I think the sooner the board gets answers to these questions about the public records requests and how they're handled, I think the more comfortable they'll be with the process," Lee said. "They'll see our process is in compliance with state and federal law."

Bean has worked for Hillsborough County for 33 years, the last six as county administrator. She is scheduled to retire when her contract expires Dec. 31, 2011. Under her contract, she is entitled to a full year of pay — $224,120 — if fired before then for reasons other than committing certain crimes.

Lee has served as county attorney since August 2004. She also is entitled to a year's salary — $212,722 — if she is fired before her contract ends in August 2014, with some exceptions, such as "flagrant neglect of duty.''

Barnes, the county's internal performance auditor since April 2007, is entitled to three months of his annual salary of $113,090 if fired.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough commissioners to assess claims of top-level e-mail snooping 03/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 8:43am]

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