TAMPA — As Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee saw it, the April luncheon was a social get-together with a former boss who was weathering another round of unflattering headlines.
Now some county commissioners are questioning what their top legal adviser was doing meeting with their former colleague, Kevin White, whom the county is suing. At least two say Lee has changed her story on how the luncheon came about, and a majority says she showed poor judgment.
White's attorney calls the meeting not just bad judgment, but an "unfathomable" breach of legal protocol, an effort to wean information relevant to the suit.
And Lee says she's wondering if it was a setup — whether she was lured to the restaurant so it could be witnessed, so she would get the unflattering headlines.
In a way she was, says the guy who initially noted the luncheon in a column read by political insiders. But Patrick Manteiga, owner of La Gaceta news weekly, says she brought it on herself.
"It was a boneheaded thing to do," Lee said Tuesday of the lunch, in terms of perception — while insisting nothing inappropriate happened.
All parties agree that Lee entered Roy's restaurant near International Plaza April 8. She was running late and sent a text message to White saying she was running behind. A third person joined them later, community activist Janee Murphy, a friend of both who was invited by Lee.
The lunch was firmed up five days earlier when White sent Lee a text message asking if they were still getting together. Lee sent a message back to White 40 minutes later to say yes, and made mention of "publicity" about his purchase of a Riverview house.
"Don't let them steal your joy," Lee said.
Commissioners are suing White to recoup money from him for legal expenses connected to his sexual harassment verdict in 2009. White has said he doesn't have the money and is suing to get his own legal bills covered.
News stories earlier this year noted White and his wife secured a loan for the $143,000 home from a businessman he met through his commission work. They were facing foreclosure on one of two other homes they own, and White lost his commission seat last year.
Lee had sent White a couple of texts May 24 asking if he had purchased a home. He asks "Why?" She notes that she lives in Riverview, too.
She says she didn't recall planning lunch with White before getting his confirmation-seeking message. She says she went largely to commiserate with someone she's known for years.
Manteiga, also a political consultant who has been a White backer, said the former commissioner ran into him a couple of days earlier and showed him the "strange" texts about the home and lunch. He says White suggested Manteiga pop by the restaurant during the lunch. He did, then wrote it up in his paper.
"I would say it was a setup," Manteiga said. "He was surprised she was going to meet with him."
Lee said the lawsuit never came up. Besides, the county has hired outside counsel to pursue the matter, she said.
Murphy, their mutual friend, said the lawsuit came up only tangentially when she asked a "smart-aleck question" about why he would buy a house with lawsuit pending.
White referred questions to his attorney. The lawyer, Michael Laurato, said the lunch should never have happened, regardless of what was discussed. Not without White's attorney there.
"This is Attorney Ethics 101," Laurato said.
Further, information relevant to the case was discussed, he said. The county is seeking money from White. A home purchase is relevant. He said it was hard to believe she wasn't talking to the county's hired lawyer.
Four of seven commissioners reached said the luncheon is a concern to them, but each said they want to learn more.
"It was not a good choice," said Chairman Al Higginbotham.
Two, Higginbotham and Kevin Beckner, said they talked to Lee when the topic first surfaced. They said they can't be sure, but recall Lee told them that she ran into White by happenstance.
"That was the way it was explained to me by Renee," Beckner said.
Then White's attorney released images of the iPhone text message log from White's phone.
Lee said she's never said it was a chance encounter. It was in her calendar, she said.
She said she can't believe a moment of empathy has turned into something questionable.
"My heart was good," she said.