Daniel Ruth

Not criminals, but not much better

Within a span of just a few days, two former high-ranking Hillsborough County officials were deemed not to be crooks by the folks with badges, although but they certainly were found to be — and this is a highly technical legal term — dopes. Whew! For a moment someone might have concluded something was amiss. This was Hillsborough County after all, a strange, often bizarre land where incompetence in public office is a historical sacred trust.

First up came the feds. After painstakingly reviewing the tenure of Buddy Johnson as the supervisor of elections — also known as the era of the Black Plague of Ballots — they arrived at the opinion that although Johnson overspent his allotted budget by nearly a million dollars, failed to pay his office's bills and essentially used his position to plaster more images of himself around the community than Saddam Hussein, none of his megalomania rose to the level of a crime worthy of the attention of the U.S. attorney.

The FBI also looked into Johnson's byzantine personal finances involving a now-failed $800,000 real estate loan and surmised that while the deal might be more hinky than a three-card monte hustler on the Chicago L, there was no reason to get the federal courts involved.

Next, Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober weighed in after his office investigated ex-County Administrator Pat Bean and current County Attorney Renee Lee, the Thelma and Louise of paper-pushers. He noted that while the two women gave themselves improper pay raises and Lee may have created a phony public records request in order to snoop around public records requests, there was no reason to start talking about the Miranda rule.

In 2007, Bean and Lee finagled hidden 1 percent pay raises for themselves totaling about $2,100 each. Pay hikes for executives like Bean and Lee are supposed to be approved by the full County Commission, which would have taken a dim view of the paycheck bumps. And they did, eventually dismissing Bean.

This wasn't as if two flunkies in some backwater government agency had dipped into the petty cash fund. These were two high-profile, powerful flunkies.

Bean's administrator salary was $226,366 and Lee was hauling in a cool $214,864. And yet, in a time when county government was struggling with its budget and other employees were getting laid off, these two, who were already making a very comfortable income, decided to risk their careers for a lousy, stinking two grand and change.

Indeed, it was Lee who wrote a legal "opinion" to Bean justifying the raises, which was a bit like Lady Gaga asking Madonna's opinion if she thinks the breast cones are just a bit over the top. By the way, Lee is still on the payroll, offering her keen, astute legal advice for more than $200,000 a year.

A thrilled and relieved Bean said she felt the Ober report "vindicated" her and that a stain on her public administration career had been removed. Uh, Ms. Bean? To paraphrase Roy Scheider in Jaws, you're going to need a bigger tub of OxiClean to handle this taint.

Just because these folks avoided having to hire a criminal defense attorney doesn't mean what they did was right.

Buddy Johnson inherited a perfectly well-functioning Supervisor of Elections office from Pam Iorio, who resigned to run for mayor of Tampa, and turned the operation into self-aggrandizing, muddled Chinese fire drill of bureaucratic incompetence. In the end, Johnson proved he couldn't manage a job sharpening Lotto card pencils.

For her part, if Bean was so concerned about her reputation, she shouldn't have been so willing to risk her legacy by attempting to circumvent the County Commission to pad her paycheck with chump change.

In Hillsborough especially, county administrators traditionally reach a point where they come to regard their bosses on the commission as seven clueless whack-a-mole dummies. By the way, there is some truth to this.

The county administrator, or at least a good one, generally knows a great deal more about the inner workings of government than the assorted feedbag of pols who populate most commissions.

And that understanding often breeds hubris. Bean and Lee, it could be argued, gave themselves even modest raises because: a) they felt entitled and/or b) they thought they could get away with it.

It is true that Pat Bean was an able executive. She doesn't enjoy the luxury of Buddy Johnson's reputation for turning his office into scorched earth because he was a clueless, egotistical dolt.

But Pat Bean knew exactly what she was doing. That's her punishment, because now everybody else knows it, too.

Not criminals, but not much better 02/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 14, 2011 6:45pm]

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