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Sex claims lead to firing

Terry White, head of the state agency that supervises services to Florida's senior citizens, was abruptly fired Wednesday following allegations of sexual harassment.

Gov. Jeb Bush fired White after at least three women employees alleged he asked them for oral sex.

An attorney for White, 48, denied the allegations and said he will fight to clear his name.

The governor, who is touring tsunami-ravaged countries in south Asia, directed chief of staff Denver Stutler to dismiss White.

"The governor called for his termination," said communications director Alia Faraj. "His behavior is unacceptable. It will not be condoned. The governor is saddened and outraged by what these individuals have been through."

White was fired the day after the St. Petersburg Times asked the governor's staff about complaints made by women at the state agency.

Stutler ordered White not to enter the building where his office is located and said his personal belongings will be delivered by week's end. Stutler told White to turn in his office keys and any other state property and advised him against contacting any employees in the agency.

White will not receive payment for vacation time, sick leave or any of his retirement funds until the governor can determine his legal options, Stutler said.

Bush appointed Susan Tucker, Department of Elder Affairs deputy secretary, to serve as interim secretary. The agency administers human service programs for the elderly, has more than 360 employees and a budget of more than $340-million.

The governor's office received the initial complaint last Thursday. General counsel Raquel A. Rodriguez interviewed White, members of the agency's senior staff and employees who made the sexual harassment allegations.

"Based on these interviews, I find the allegations made credible," Rodriguez wrote in a memo to Stutler on Wednesday. "The conduct alleged was in violation of the sexual harassment policy as described in the code of ethics. I recommend immediate disciplinary action."

White referred questions to Bill Waters, a Tallahassee lawyer who will represent him.

"My client is wrongfully accused," Waters said. "We intend to fight these charges and allegations to the fullest extent under the law and clear his name."

Waters said he knows few details of the allegations. Faraj, the governor's communications director, said additional details will not be released to protect the victims. She said details of the investigation were not written down and that state public records law does not require the release of records when an alleged victim chooses not to make a complaint of employment discrimination.

Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by Florida news media, said the law Faraj cited applies to employment discrimination, not sexual harassment. State agencies have routinely released reports of investigations of sexual harassment.

White was appointed secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs three years ago after working nine years for Senior Solutions, an aging agency in Southwest Florida. He also worked in various posts at the Ohio Department of Aging.

Associates who knew White in South Florida said they were stunned at the allegations.

"That is absolutely a surprise to me," said William Prather of Fort Myers, who serves on an advisory board for the state agency and recommended White's appointment three years ago.

Prather said White was divorced by the time he met him in Florida, where both worked with agencies that help seniors.

White's swift departure differed from Bush's handling of other agency heads who left after controversy.

Agency heads like former Department of Children and Families Secretary Jerry Regier were allowed to resign with no public criticism by the governor.

Other agency heads who left after controversy include Cynthia Henderson, former secretary of the Department of Management Services; Kathleen Kearney, former secretary of the Department of Children and Families; state Technology Officer Kim Bahrami; Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Kim Binkley-Seyer; and Corrections Secretary Mike Moore.

One exception was Gema Hernandez, White's predecessor. Hernandez was fired in September 2001 after she tangled with legislators and local aging agencies.

Initially Bush said Hernandez had resigned, but she said she had been forced out because she tried to get to the bottom of mismanagement among politically connected organizations. Bush then said he fired her because she lacked the ability to manage people and programs.

Hernandez, now an academic administrator at Florida State University, has been critical of her former agency and frequently calls attention to problems in letters and e-mails to reporters.