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State investigators seize Hillsborough County officials' records, subpoena workers

TAMPA — Authorities seized records from a Hillsborough County commissioner Friday and subpoenaed employees of County Attorney Renee Lee as part of an investigation into allegations of stealth pay raises and e-mail snooping at County Center.

Two Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents visited Commissioner Rose Ferlita's office shortly after 3 p.m. Friday. They left more than an hour later with a box filled with records Ferlita has said contain information about internal performance auditor Jim Barnes that Lee provided to her.

The records appear to be more than e‑mail to and from Barnes' office. Earlier, Ferlita described at least two stacks of records about Barnes that contain everything from his planned peer review to auditing standards — all heavily tabbed and labeled with sticky notes for easy perusal.

It's a veritable dossier on Barnes that Ferlita says was provided by Lee who, as county attorney, is supposed to be the auditor's advocate.

The seizure took place after Ferlita informed an FDLE agent earlier in the day that a St. Petersburg Times reporter wanted to review the same records. Ferlita said the investigator asked her not to allow that and told her the agency would be taking possession of the documents immediately.

FDLE agents served several employees in Lee's office with subpoenas earlier Friday, said Heather Smith, a spokeswoman for the agency. She declined to identify the employees.

"This is the most surreal situation I've ever seen," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe even before the records were seized. Lee could not be reached for comment.

The FDLE has been investigating Lee and County Administrator Pat Bean since late last year. Commissioner Kevin Beckner requested the review after Barnes issued a report showing Bean awarded herself, Lee and several other top county employees 1 percent pay raises in 2007.

A week ago, Barnes issued a new report that accused employees of Lee and Bean of snooping through his e-mail and that of his employees.

Barnes began his inquiry after Ferlita paraphrased information contained in a pair of e-mails to one of his employees during a January workshop. The e-mail contained information that suggested the employee was handling personal affairs on county time and equipment.

Ferlita said the e-mails were given to her by Lee as part of the larger package of documents seized Friday that the commissioner has said she never requested and has mostly never read. She said Lee volunteered and hand-delivered the records some time before the January meeting.

Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the fate of Lee, Bean and Barnes on Wednesday, and to hire a law firm to deal with issues involving the investigation.

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

State investigators seize Hillsborough County officials' records, subpoena workers 03/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 11:48pm]
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