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Hillsborough commission's tie vote means no lawsuit against Kevin White for now

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White listens while Commissioner Rose Ferlita walks to the county lawyer during a debate about her motion to sue White at the Frederick B. Karl County Center on Wednesday.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White listens while Commissioner Rose Ferlita walks to the county lawyer during a debate about her motion to sue White at the Frederick B. Karl County Center on Wednesday.

TAMPA — In a close vote, Hillsborough County commissioners decided Wednesday not to sue fellow Commissioner Kevin White for trial costs stemming from a sexual discrimination judgment against him this year.

Meanwhile, White stated publicly for the first time that he would be willing to contribute toward the costs, but would not commit to an amount until he learned what the final tally would be. And he suggested he and the county wouldn't have lost the case at trial if Hillsborough had better employee policies in place.

"We continue to delay, delay, delay," said Commissioner Rose Ferlita in urging the board to support her motion to sue. "He's a co-defendant. He does not want to be a co-payer."

Ferlita was joined by Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Jim Norman. Kevin Beckner, Ken Hagan and Mark Sharpe voted against a lawsuit. White abstained from the vote, which failed 3-3.

In August, a federal jury awarded White's former aide, Alyssa Ogden, $75,000 in damages after finding that he fired her for refusing his multiple sexual advances. The county's costs, including attorney's fees, have reached about $500,000.

The jury found both White and the county liable.

Ferlita had asked White on several occasions if he would be willing to pay some of the cost of the judgment and fees. However, his attorney wrote to the county saying an answer would come after the county determined how much money, if any, insurance policies might cover.

If the commissioners were to sue White, they would have to retain independent counsel. The estimated cost of that action, if it went uncontested, would be about $20,000, said County Attorney Renee Lee.

Beckner argued that White should be treated like other parties with whom the county has had issues and offered other avenues for a solution, like mediation.

He proposed a counter motion to delay the vote until the final cost was tallied. That motion also failed by a 3-3 vote.

"All of us are sickened by the amount of tax money wasted in this process," Beckner said. "For the taxpayers' sake, we need to be cautious."

Some commissioners indicated they would reconsider a lawsuit against White in the future.

White defended himself against the jury's verdict, saying innocent people are convicted all the time.

"There are some actions that I am very sorry took place," he said. "None were sexual or harassing in nature. I will say that to my grave."

White also blamed the verdict on the fact that the county did not offer a meaningful way for employees who are not covered under civil service rules to challenge a wrongful firing. His comments echoed an order issued by the judge in the case, saying there were broad gaps in how the county protects many of its workers from discrimination.

White held up a draft of a new county policies and procedures manual of harassment in the workplace and blamed his problems on the lack of a guidebook. During the trial, White testified that he arranged a rendezvous between his young aide, Ogden, and an older, married friend on a trip to Atlanta.

"The jury wanted to send the county a message," White said. "It should've been in place."

White said he would be willing to pay toward the costs and would "be happy" to tell the board what he thought he could afford. But he did not want to commit to an amount without knowing the final sum.

Ferlita said even if White had to file for bankruptcy, she wanted a commitment.

A review of public records by the St. Petersburg Times last month raises doubt about White's ability to contribute much. In December 2008, White listed debts of $373,000, and his $98,000 commissioner's salary as a main source of income.

"We still are at a stalemate," Ferlita said. "He said he would pay, but we don't know what that is. I'm not convinced."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough commission's tie vote means no lawsuit against Kevin White for now 10/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 8, 2009 1:38am]
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