TAMPA — Two top Hillsborough County officials stand accused of essentially the same thing: taking unauthorized pay raises and trolling through e-mail of the auditor who uncovered them.
One, former County Administrator Pat Bean, got fired Wednesday. The other, County Attorney Renee Lee, is returning to work Monday after serving a 90-day paid suspension with Bean, leaving some observers to ask: What gives?
"I've been following this charade from day one," said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura. "I think these cases are identical in terms of circumstances, and they should be treated equally."
Commissioners said that there are key distinctions between how Bean and Lee's conduct have affected the climate of county government, not to mention in the wording of their contracts. Some observers argue that racially tinged political considerations played a role, too.
Commissioner Rose Ferlita and Kevin White, who led the push to spare Lee, said the allegations swirling around Bean caused broad disruption in county government, which she oversaw. Commissioners generally say things settled down considerably after she was suspended in March, making her return difficult to imagine.
Lee, on the other hand, oversees a comparatively small office, where Ferlita said there is no evidence that her return would cause discord. There was no reason she couldn't return while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates her actions, Ferlita added.
"Let me tell you, there is not one attorney I've spoken to who is not waiting for Ms. Lee to come back," Ferlita said. "As opposed to some of the different comments I've had from different department heads about morale issues and everything else and whether they wanted Ms. Bean to come back."
As it relates to the stated reason for Bean's firing with cause — that she gave herself, Lee and others an unauthorized 1 percent pay raise in 2007 that should have gotten approval from commissioners — Ferlita said there are subtle but important differences in the contracts of the two.
Bean's says she can be fired without severance for committing a felony, a crime of moral turpitude or "any illegal act involving personal gain to her in conjunction with her employment." The relevant passage in Lee's contract says she must be "convicted or adjudged guilty of a felony or any serious misdemeanor."
Commissioners have taken the wording distinctions to mean they can be the judges in Bean's case, arguing she illegally gave herself a raise since the county's charter gives that authority to the board.
Lee is accused of providing a written opinion saying she and Bean were eligible to accept the raises before they were awarded. Her justification: The raises were part of an incentive program and were handed out to managers who had responded to calls that year to cut their budgets.
She concluded that the program was a benefit. And since she and Bean have contract clauses that entitle them to the same benefits as others county managers, they were eligible for the raises — roughly $2,100 a year each — since they both cut their own budgets.
White said he's not convinced either of them did anything wrong, and determining if they did should be left to law enforcement. As a former police officer, he said he understands investigations can drag on and he saw no reason to hold Lee out of work indefinitely.
"I don't think it's fair to have someone sitting at home making an exorbitant amount of money doing absolutely nothing," White said. "I think Ms. Lee needs to be earning her keep."
Commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham were initial Bean supporters who grew frustrated with negotiations over terms of a graceful exit. Norman was the lone vote not to fire her, though he agreed it was time for her to quit.
Higginbotham said he still has concerns with Lee but has found no examples of other employees suspended indefinitely during criminal investigations.
Chairman Ken Hagan, who initially sought to fire both, gave no explanation of his vote allowing Lee to return. Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Kevin Beckner voted against Lee's return, saying she should remain suspended while the FDLE does its work.
Whatever the stated reasons, some observers believe race played a factor on some level. Through months of debate, black community leaders and activists rallied around Lee.
"Pat Bean was unable to rally any public support," noted former Commissioner Jan Platt. "But Renee Lee, on the other hand, has rallied broad support in the African-American community."
Ferlita said Wednesday's vote had nothing to do with race but was about fairness. Commissioners were discussing extending Lee's suspension, and she wasn't even there to weigh in, she said.
White said many of his constituents share a belief that black leaders in Hillsborough have been targeted for undue scrutiny and punishment in recent years.
"Of course, being a leader in the black community, I want to be able to stand up when possible and defend black leadership," White said. "Including Ms. Lee in this case, where nothing has been proven. We only have allegations at this time."
Higginbotham noted he's not up for election, that his vote had nothing to do with race and that he reserves judgment on whether Lee should remain. Attempts to reach the other two commissioners who voted to spare Lee — Norman and Hagan — were not successful.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]