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Limit payment of legal fees

It is reasonable for public officials to be reimbursed for legal fees when they wrongly are accused of committing a crime in office. It is an abuse of the privilege, however, for these officials to hire the priciest attorneys and to seek repayment before they are found guiltless of the charge. But that is exactly what is happening in Hillsborough County.

County Commissioners Jim Norman and Tom Scott have submitted legal bills totaling $28,436; the commission may decide as early as Wednesday whether to pay. It should refuse. The request violates the county's policy on reimbursement and invites attorneys to run up the clock. Instead, the commission should use the debate as an opportunity to put reasonable limits on the attorney fee policy.

The policy provides for "reimbursement" of legal fees to commissioners who "successfully defend criminal charges filed against them." First, no criminal charges have been filed in the months-long federal investigation into whether any commissioners used their offices to help an influential campaign contributor win a contract at Tampa General Hospital. Because no charges have been filed, no commissioner has yet had the chance to "successfully defend" against a criminal allegation.

The board's policy makes practical sense. Taxpayers should not prepay the defense of public officials suspected of committing a crime. Nor should taxpayers be forced into the position of having to recoup their expense if the official, ultimately, is convicted of a crime. The policy protects elected officials from unsubstantiated attacks while limiting the damage to taxpayers if public corruption is exposed.

If Norman, Scott and other county officials drawn into the probe are cleared, their attorneys will be paid with public funds. The commissioners know it, and so do their lawyers. Hillsborough County government hardly constitutes a risk as a deadbeat client.

What the commission should do in January is tighten the loophole that allows such discretionary spending. Government caps spending for travel, hotels and meals _ why not for the legal bills of public officials? One lawyer defending the Tampa General probe has billed the county $300 an hour _ more than a government employee can spend for an entire weekend away on public business.

If the accused feel the need for higher-priced advice, let them pay the difference.