Hillsborough County commissioners decided Wednesday to further investigate County Attorney Renee Lee's recent dealings with former Commissioner Kevin White, saying what they read in newspaper articles and saw on TV didn't match up with what she told them.
During a meeting unrelated to Lee's situation, Commissioner Mark Sharpe said it was necessary to determine whether the board's top legal adviser violated Florida Bar rules by having lunch last month with White.
The county is suing White to recover expenses related to a 2009 sexual harassment verdict involving his treatment of an aide.
Lee insists that no business was discussed with White, though she said Tuesday the lunch itself was "a boneheaded thing to do."
During Wednesday's meeting, commissioners said they were surprised that Lee told the media her April 8 lunch with White was scheduled. Chairman Al Higginbotham and Commissioner Kevin Beckner said Lee told them previously that she ran into White that day only by happenstance.
Community activist Janee Murphy also attended the lunch. Patrick Manteiga, owner of the weekly La Gaceta newspaper, showed up to the restaurant and then wrote about the luncheon in his paper.
Sharpe said if it is proved that Lee lied to commissioners, he would advocate firing her.
"I believe that the county attorney must reflect a very high level of integrity and character and trustworthiness," he said. "… I would have no option as a public official but to take action."
Commissioners hope to hear more from Lee, who was not present for Wednesday's discussion, during their regular June 2 meeting. They have asked an outside attorney to provide legal guidance and will eventually determine whether a compliant about Lee should be taken to the Florida Bar.
Commissioner Victor Crist cautioned his colleagues against jumping to conclusions based on media reports before Lee is given a chance to share her side of the story.
"There is a process that needs to take place before we just send a letter to the Bar and ask them to intervene," he said.
The June 2 discussion will focus only on what happened at the lunch with White, though commissioners say there are other concerns about Lee that continue to linger.
She served a 90-day paid suspension last year after commissioners accused her of taking an unauthorized pay raise and reading through the e-mail of the auditor who uncovered it.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation concluded that former County Administrator Pat Bean showed poor judgment in awarding herself and Lee a raise in 2007 but that it could not be proved she committed a crime. Lee wrote a legal opinion that paved the way for the raises, the report noted.
Sharpe said there is material in the FDLE report that further legitimizes questions about Lee's conduct and judgment. Lee's job evaluation is scheduled for October. The county attorney since 2004, Lee has a contract that grants her a year of pay and benefits if she is fired for any reason short of conviction of a crime.
Community activist Terry Flott sent commissioners an e-mail Wednesday urging them to cut ties with Lee immediately. Her recent actions were unethical and showed a pattern of questionable decisionmaking, she wrote.
"Apparently, her judgment skills were not improved during her last 'leave,' and it is doubtful that they ever will be," Flott said. "Please act today to begin rectifying this dangerous situation immediately rather than letting it fester."
Commissioners agreed to move slowly because of the pending litigation against White, as well as the potential for lawsuits.
"I think we should move cautiously," Sharpe said, "but move."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3405.