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White could end up paying nothing in sexual harassment verdict

TAMPA — The good news: Hillsborough County has learned that an insurance policy it holds will cover its legal expenses from Commissioner Kevin White's sexual discrimination trial.

The bad news: The policy has what amounts to a $350,000 deductible. And it doesn't cover $75,000 in damages awarded to the former aide who sued White.

What's more, because the county filed its insurance claim first, taxpayers will have to take the deductible hit, on top of paying the damages. And White may be able to submit a claim on the same policy for his own legal bills and have them fully paid.

The insurer will pay roughly $65,000 after the deductible. That still leaves taxpayers on the hook in this sordid affair for $425,000.

The cost to White: potentially zero.

"That doesn't sound right at all," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "This whole thing is damning and outrageous."

But county risk managers say its entirely possible. They don't believe White would face a separate deductible. And they expect, since the insurer is paying the county's legal costs, that the policy will also cover his expenses.

"It's one deductible per incident," said Christina Swanson, director of the county's employee benefits and risk management division. "We were sued jointly and determined to be jointly liable."

A federal jury found in August that White sexually discriminated against former aide Alyssa Ogden. In the lawsuit, she said she was fired after seven months on the job in 2007 for refusing his repeated sexual advances. The suit also named Hillsborough County as a defendant.

The jury awarded Ogden $75,000 in damages, and the verdict meant she was entitled to have her legal bills paid. The judge said the county was liable as well, in part for not having a meaningful way for employees such as Ogden to file a workplace complaint.

White's fellow commissioners have been trying to pressure him to pick up some of the nearly $490,000 initial total tab.

White has said he needs to know whether the county insurance will pay any of his legal expenses before he can commit to paying some of the county's costs.

But he has failed to file a formal claim yet, county records show.

Attempts to reach White were not successful Friday. He has previously said his own legal bills are comparable to what the county paid for outside counsel, which was roughly $200,000.

His attorney, Steven Wenzel, notified the county insurer, Meadowbrook Insurance Group, in September that White intends to file a claim. He said he called the company earlier this week to seek guidance on what to submit and is awaiting word back.

Wenzel said there was no deliberate effort to stall in order to ensure the county absorbs the deductible while White's claim is covered in full.

"We're not spending any time thinking about the county's deductible," Wenzel said. "We haven't since the beginning. There's no strategy being played out here."

County Attorney Renee Lee, who has not fully investigated the matter, said she is not certain the policy will cover a claim from White. The so-called extra liability policy includes several exemptions, she noted.

"My only concern is we need a final word from the insurance company," Lee said. "Normally they only cover actions within the scope of a person's duty. I don't think the insurance company would cover a judgment for harassment as being within the scope of a commissioner's job duties."

The claims representative handling the case for Meadowbrook did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Sharpe said that the county administration and attorney's office should be more on top of the issue and that it doesn't appear that they are. If there's any possibility White could get his bill paid while taxpayers are on the hook, the county should have had a strategy for dealing with it.

Al Higginbotham, part of a board bloc that unsuccessfully sought to sue White to get him to pay some of the costs, said he will be troubled if White gets off scot-free.

"That's not good news," he said. "And I'm sure the board will revisit the matter."

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

BY THE NUMBERS

Ogden vs. White

$415,000



County legal expenses (includes Ogden's legal bill).

$75,000

Damages awarded to Ogden by jury.

$490,000



Total initial estimated cost to taxpayers if insurance paid nothing.

$65,000 Amount in county legal expenses policy covers. Insurance policy does not cover $75,000 damage award. Policy doesn't cover first $350,000 in costs and losses.

$425,000



Amount that taxpayers remain on the hook for.

$0

Total cost of the case to White if insurer pays his legal bill.

Note: White has not disclosed his legal bill but has said it rivals what the county paid its outside counsel, about $200,000.

White could end up paying nothing in sexual harassment verdict 11/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 6, 2009 11:49pm]
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