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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 bdavis@tampabay.com.

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