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Hillsborough County wants Kevin White to pay costs in sexual bias case

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County attorney's office is looking for ways to make Commissioner Kevin White pay some of the costs stemming from his sexual discrimination trial.

That could include appealing U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara's ruling that holds the county liable along with White for $75,000 in damages awarded by a jury.

County Attorney Renee Lee has been discussing with commissioners the possibility of appealing that narrow issue rather than challenging the overall verdict.

"We need to do that as quickly as possible," said Lee, who will present options and seek guidance from commissioners on Sept. 2.

White must pay his own lawyers, but the tab for the other attorneys and the jury award could exceed $350,000.

An eight-person jury found last week that White sexually discriminated against former aide Alyssa Ogden by firing her in 2007 for refusing his repeated sexual advances. The $75,000 verdict was about half of what Ogden had sought.

But the expenses don't stop there. The county, which was named in the suit, has spent more than $170,000 in its defense. And the county and White will have to pay Ogden's legal bills, which are expected to top $100,000 when the amount is negotiated over the next two weeks.

Commissioners reached Tuesday said their primary interest is assuring that the taxpayers foot as little of the bill as possible.

"The county attorney should explore all avenues, because I don't see any way the county is going to authorize payment of these damages," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan.

Kevin Beckner, White's lone fellow Democrat among the seven commissioners, said he's focused on minimizing the taxpayers' liability.

Lee acknowledged that one commissioner has asked what would happen if the county simply refused to pay. She said she is researching that issue as well.

An attorney for the county had argued during the trial that it shouldn't be held liable in the case, or that the jury should at least consider the county and White separately. But because White had sole authority over his aide's hiring and firing, he and the county are considered one and the same, the judge ruled.

Ron Fraley, Ogden's attorney, said it's a fairly clear issue under the law that the county is liable. He expressed surprise that its lawyers would consider continuing to challenge that point.

"They're in it together," he said. "The county is responsible for what he did."

The lone juror reached after the case said that most of the people who served on the panel were reluctant to award money to Ogden. They did so mainly to send a message to the county, juror John Shiver said.

The county needs to set guidelines for how commissioners' aides are hired and fired, he added.

Testimony in the case revealed that Ogden was hired without a resume over more qualified applicants and that the county challenged her right to appeal her dismissal to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Attorneys argued that White had sole authority in that decision.

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

Hillsborough County wants Kevin White to pay costs in sexual bias case 08/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 11:27pm]
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