A Times Editorial

County attorney should be fired

Finally, Hillsborough commissioners will discuss on Thursday whether to fire County Attorney Renee Lee for misconduct. She is under fire for having lunch with former Commissioner Kevin White, whom the county is suing for legal fees incurred in his sexual harassment case two years ago. The meeting was a gross error in judgment that may bring legal ramifications for the county, and it is one of several reasons to replace Lee as the county's chief lawyer.

Lee describes the lunch as casual and says the two did not discuss the case. But she had no business meeting with White, personally or professionally. The county hired an outside counsel to handle the matter for the very reason that Lee, as the board's attorney, had an ethical conflict in suing a then-commissioner. She should have removed herself entirely from White's orbit. Worse, text messages the two exchanged raise serious questions about whether Lee revealed inside information. Two commissioners said she misled them by characterizing the lunch as a chance encounter, which Lee waves off as a misunderstanding.

Lee will have an opportunity on Thursday to address these concerns. In a deposition made public Tuesday, White claims the pair had lunch twice, not once, and discussed the case several times. Commissioners should ask Lee on Thursday to give her explanation in sworn testimony. She will need to reconcile how her meeting with White and any communication with him meets the language in Hillsborough's charter that requires the county attorney "to protect the interests of the county" in "all litigation." One avenue to pursue is how Lee would have reacted if one of her staff attorneys had been caught chatting up the ex-commissioner.

The lunch, though, is really just another scene in a tiresome drama that inevitably calls into question Lee's judgment, candor and leadership abilities. She still has not adequately explained her role in the county's pay raise and e-mail snooping scandal last year. Though her pay is set under contract with the commission, Lee received a pay raise without the board's knowledge after she issued a legal opinion declaring herself eligible for one. Her recollection of how the raise came about does not square with the story of one key aide. And state investigators found that Lee likely lied about what prompted her to order a search of documents related to a criminal probe of the pay raises.

Nothing is more essential to the attorney-client relationship than trust. The board should fire Lee; she has several assistants perfectly capable of managing the office on a temporary basis. Commissioners need a comfort level with their attorney — not more misunderstandings.

County attorney should be fired 05/31/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 6:38pm]

    

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