State Attorney Mark Ober said earlier this year he couldn't prove a crime was committed when former Hillsborough Administrator Pat Bean gave herself and the county attorney secret pay raises.
Bean had asked for an opinion from then-County Attorney Renee Lee, who said the 1 percent raises awarded in 2007 were permissible. And Lee couldn't be prosecuted for a legal opinion, however iffy, he said.
But the public advocate for the Florida Commission on Ethics accepted neither excuse in finding last week that there is probable cause that both corruptly misused their public positions.
Advocate Melody A. Hadley, a prosecutor of sorts for the Ethics Commission, says they both knew only county commissioners could change her salary. An investigative report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement showed Bean and her top deputy had concluded on their own that neither was eligible for the raise.
The fact that Bean got a legal opinion counter to that does not exonerate her, the advocate said in a report released Wednesday. "The legal opinion is just an opinion and is only one factor (Bean) should have used to determine if she or Lee were eligible to receive the pay increase," the report says.
Lee maintained in the legal opinion that the pay hikes were tantamount to benefits, such as vacation time, because they were given that year to other managers who cut their budgets. She noted her contract and Bean's entitled them to benefits offered to other county employees.
The Ethics Commission's investigator summary indicates that Lee claims she believed the award was a one-time bonus when she wrote her opinion.
But the advocate's analysis also notes that Lee wrote two separate opinions on the topic. In both, Lee indicates that her opinion pertains to the "1 percent salary award" and fails to mention the need for commission approval.
In any event, the advocate writes, "There is sufficient evidence to show corrupt intent as (Lee) did not act in the proper performance of her office in writing the opinions. The proper performance of her office required her to give an opinion on the correct issue."
Neither Bean nor Lee returned calls Wednesday.
Former county performance auditor Jim Barnes unearthed the raises in 2009 after reports that Bean had secretly awarded her top deputies large pay raises as other employees got pink slips.
County Commissioner Kevin Beckner requested the FDLE investigation that Ober said failed to prove the raises were criminal.
Separately, Dover activist George Niemann filed the ethics complaint.
County commissioners fired Bean in June 2010, citing the raises as cause to fire her without full severance. She is suing the county.
Lee's contract was terminated a year later, and she negotiated a deal to leave with a partial severance payment.
A spokesman for Ober said the Ethics Commission findings, which must still go before an administrative law judge for a recommendation back to that board, cannot be fairly compared to the conclusions made by his office. Finding that someone may have acted unethically is different from saying he or she may have committed a crime, he said.
"There is a different standard that we had to apply, and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt," spokesman Mark Cox said. "Their role is completely different than ours."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.