Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Former Hillsborough County attorney fined, reprimanded by Ethics Commission

TALLAHASSEE — Former Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee vowed Friday to take her ethics case back to court in the latest twist of a long, public saga over a $1,700 pay raise.

Florida's Commission on Ethics imposed a $5,000 fine and a public reprimand Friday on Lee, who gave legal advice that led to a 1 percent pay raise in 2007 for herself and former County Administrator Pat Bean.

Lee's attorney, Mark Herron, called the 6-1 ruling an "injustice," and said his client will take the case to the 3rd District Court of Appeal. Lee did not attend the Tallahassee hearing and deferred questions to her attorney.

Commissioners seemed troubled over whether Lee deserved the penalty, but hesitated to defy the recommendation of an administrative law judge who suggested Lee's testimony lacked credibility.

The Hillsborough County Commission must approve pay raises for its top appointed officials, but Lee advised her colleagues that board approval was unnecessary because the raise was an award for all department heads who met financial benchmarks. Lee's legal opinion helped provide cover for Bean, who lost her job in part for the raise she and the attorney accepted. Bean was cleared of ethics charges on the grounds she was following Lee's legal advice.

Ethics commissioners agreed that Lee, 59, should not have blessed the raise. But it's unclear whether the move was corrupt or merely careless.

"I find it kind of sad that over $1,700 someone would place themselves in such a vulnerable position," said Commissioner Matthew Carlucci. "The word 'corrupt,' that's a tough word. I wouldn't want that word used on me."

The panel's decision is the latest turn in a two-year battle over an ethics scandal that cost big money and caused plenty of hand-wringing among Hillsborough commissioners, who dismissed Lee in June 2011. Lee got a payout of roughly $150,000 from the county.

Commissioners were forced to pay Bean a little more than $500,000 in severance and unused sick and vacation time after firing her in 2010. They initially denied Bean the year of pay and benefits due under her contract with the county, citing the raise they were never asked to approve as justification. Bean sued the county and won, and got her legal expenses covered as well.

Herron argued passionately before the ethics panel that there's a lack of "substantial, competent evidence" that Lee intentionally committed malpractice.

He also said the administrative law judge put too much weight on testimony from a witness with only a hazy memory of what happened.

The panelists seemed moved by the arguments, but not enough to jump through the legal hoops required to overturn the judge's decision.

Commissioner Edwin Scales, himself a lawyer, cast the dissenting vote.

"When did the legal malpractice rise to the level of an ethics violation?" he said. "What is the standard in which screwing up on legal advice crosses the line?"

Dover activist George Niemann, who filed the ethics complaint, said Lee deserves to be punished.

He may follow up with a complaint to the Florida Bar, he said. But the Bar has previously dismissed a similar complaint.

"The advice she gave was questionable and self-serving," he said. "That's not acceptable."

Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at (850) 323-0353 or

Former Hillsborough County attorney fined, reprimanded by Ethics Commission 09/07/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 7, 2012 11:43pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays beat Orioles, but tough stretch looms that could change their plans (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Even with their losing streak extending to five the night before, Rays officials were continuing Tuesday on their same track in trade talks leading up to Monday's deadline seeking a proven reliever and a right-handed bat.

    Looking to buy.

    The Rays’ Tim Beckham celebrates with Mallex Smith after hitting a three-run homer in the second inning for a 5-0 lead.
  2. Diaz, Taddeo win easily in special Miami Senate primaries


    Two Miami state Senate candidates who raised and spent the most in their respective primaries — Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz and Democratic businesswoman Annette Taddeo — notched easy victories in a special election Tuesday night.

    Republican candidate Jose Felix Diaz is surrounded by supporters after he won the primary for Florida’s Senate District 40 race. Democrat Annette Taddeo, right, celebrates her victory with supporter Venus Lovely at BJ’s Restaurant in The Falls.
  3. In live debate, Kriseman and Baker ask St. Pete: Is the city better off?



    Mayoral candidates Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker made their best pitch to voters in front of a live television audience on Tuesday night. The candidates essentially asked this: Is the city better off now than it was four years ago?

    Incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker debate in front of a live television audience during the City of St. Petersburg Mayoral Debate at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg on Tuesday evening. The event was sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
  4. Romano: It all comes down to sewage in this mayoral race

    Local Government

    Well, poop.

    Nothing else really matters, does it?

    Schools, economic development, public safety? Pfft. The Rays stadium, affordable housing, the pier? Ack. When it comes to the St. Petersburg mayoral election, sewage is the yin, the yang and the yuck.

    At Tuesday’s debate, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman said responsibility lies on him regarding the sewage crisis.
  5. Shooting sends man to hospital in St. Pete


    ST. PETERSBURG — Police were investigating a shooting that occurred around 4:40 p.m. on Tuesday and sent a man to the hospital.