TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners voted Thursday to sue their colleague Kevin White, to recover money spent defending him last year in a sexual discrimination lawsuit.
Commissioners called it an attempt to force White to show some accountability for the federal court verdict against him, even if it means spending more money to do so.
"This whole time, we have given him the opportunity to come up with something and he has not," said Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who pushed for the lawsuit.
White cast the lone dissenting vote, though it appears he made a mistake and should have abstained. State law prohibits commissioners from voting on matters that could cost or benefit them financially.
The vote authorizes County Attorney Renee Lee to spend up to $25,000 to hire an outside law firm to take on the case. Any amounts above that would require additional commission approval.
The move is likely more symbolic than substantive. Commissioners have been under heat from the public because taxpayers thus far have picked up $425,000 in legal expenses stemming from the trial. White has contributed nothing to offset the taxpayers' expense.
White said Thursday he doesn't have the money to help defray the costs. "You can't get blood from a turnip," he said.
White has previously said he might be willing to contribute to the public expense from the trial. But he said he was hoping a county insurance policy would pick up some of his own legal expenses from the case, but that request was denied.
White said he still owes most of the bill for his own lawyers. And he said he has personal expenses including college tuition for his children, car payments and upside-down mortgages.
"I don't have it, I don't have it, I don't have it," White said.
A civil jury found last year that White sexually discriminated against former aide Alyssa Ogden, who said she was fired after seven months on the job in 2007 for refusing White's sexual advances. The jury awarded her $75,000. The judge ruled the county was jointly liable because it didn't have adequate safeguards for commission employees alleging discrimination.
Ever since the verdict, Ferlita has led other commissioners in trying to get him to offer to pay some of the costs of the case. White has said he needs to know his own financial exposure first, and generally has declined to offer any demonstrable show of contrition.
White has expressed embarrassment over the verdict. But he insisted again Thursday that the jury erred in his case. The county mishandled the lawsuit, he said, and was more culpable because it didn't have adequate procedures for addressing workplace complaints.
With the ruling from the county's insurance carrier, Ferlita said it was time to put the matter to rest. Other commissioners expressed anxiety, however, about spending more money on what may be a fruitless effort.
Both White and his attorney said it may be cheaper for him to file for bankruptcy if the county sues. A bankruptcy would probably wipe out any effort to recoup taxpayers' money, the county's attorneys said.
Still, Ferlita said it was important to pursue the matter.
"A lot of people don't like us spending $425,000 and not doing something to get some of that back for taxpayers," she said. "All of us have to be responsible for our actions."
The debate was tense at times and carried over from the morning to the afternoon session of Thursday's commission meeting. White's vote on his behalf drew no reaction from other commissioners or Lee, the county attorney. Lee said later that White probably shouldn't have voted because a lawsuit is likely to cost him financially. "I think in the heat of the moment, he may have voted on something he should not have," Lee said. "I think we were all kind of shell-shocked."
Leon County Attorney Herb Thiele, who gives seminars on running local government meetings, said he would have advised White against voting. White can still ask for the decision to be rescinded and commissioners could vote again with White abstaining, he said.
"I think you can unring the bell in that way," Thiele said.
White, who has abstained on prior votes related to his lawsuit, said he thought it was okay for him to vote since Lee did not say otherwise. If he cast a vote in error, he said, he will seek to remedy that.
"I was under the impression that if it was a conflict that our competent county attorney would have brought it to my attention," White said. "Since she did not, I assumed that I could vote."
Bill Varian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3387.