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Mopping up Commissioner White's sexual discrimination mess: Should taxpayers pick up the tab?

And you thought the messy part was over after those salacious allegations played out in court about the married elected official begging the much younger employee for a kiss.

It's about to get messier.

Last week a federal jury handed down a big, fat we-don't-buy-it to Hillsborough Commissioner and Democrat Kevin White in a sex discrimination case filed by his then-aide, who was 22. The jury was less than impressed with White's defense that he wasn't repeatedly hitting on Alyssa Ogden, just setting her up with this politically powerful elderly guy he knew. (Or, as a juror later put it, "pimping.")

The jury did not buy that her firing was more about incompetence than noncompliance.

Now for the next messy part: Who pays for his embarrassing behavior?

Who picks up the tab for the $75,000 the jury awarded Ogden, the proposed $216,633 for her attorneys' fees and costs, and the $170,000 the county spent defending itself — close to half a million bucks all told?

That would be us. Yep. Whole or in part, taxpayers will likely foot the bill for this mess.

The county also was named in the suit, and now officials are working to untangle legal questions on who pays what. White's fellow commissioners are very aware voters won't be happy about spending a dime on this sordidness, especially as jobs and services are being slashed.

Here are some options they'll consider next Wednesday at what will likely be a closed session (And, boo, hiss, boo! That's our money you're talking about in there! Booooo!)

1. Get White to pay out of moral obligation. And good luck with that. But get him to pay as much as possible.

2. Appeal — not the verdict, just the ruling that the county and White are legally one in terms of responsibility.

3. Suck it up and pay what the jury said.

One commissioner asked about flat-out refusing to hand over a cent, which, while it might make a nice sound bite for voters, is not the wisest idea. In the extreme, it could mean a contempt charge or even a county building seized. Imagine this story getting any worse.

As for commissioners who think the county is not responsible (hey, the county didn't ask to share an underling's hotel bed), they might want to note what one juror said afterward. He told Times reporter Bill Varian they awarded money to send a message to the county about how commissioners' aides are hired and fired.

So here's my nonlawyer, nothing-but-a-courtroom-observer-and-outraged-taxpayer take. The county should:

1. Explore every avenue to ensure White pays. Go after him legally, if that's what it takes.

2. Look hard at policies that let him "go with his gut" and hire a young woman less qualified than other applicants even without a resume.

3. Though it's easier to pander to angry voters, explore similar discrimination cases (there are plenty) and seriously consider whether they have a prayer on that appeal, which could stack up even more legal fees.

No, taxpayers should not have to pay for this man's mess. But if we are legally on the hook, there's a lesson on the character of people we elect — and, next year when White is on the ballot again, re-elect. A messy, six-figure lesson.

Mopping up Commissioner White's sexual discrimination mess: Should taxpayers pick up the tab? 08/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 12:57pm]
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