The federal jury in Kevin White's sexual harassment trial sent two messages last month in finding that the Hillsborough County commissioner wrongly fired his female aide. The first was that some misconduct was so egregious it could pass the he said/she said threshold that abusers have long relied upon to dodge accountability. The second was that the county was asking for trouble by giving its elected commissioners almost unbridled authority over whom they hire and how they manage their staffs. The commission, which will take up the White mess again today, should show it learned a lesson from the jury and the trial judge. It needs to provide commission aides with the same protections against discrimination that other county employees enjoy.
The immediate question is whether the county should appeal. Throwing good money after bad would be as financially reckless in this case as it would be morally reprehensible. The federal jury sided with White's former aide, Alyssa Ogden, who detailed a pattern of rebuffing White's sexual advances before White fired her in November 2007. The county did not protect this employee when it mattered, and it should not compound the damage by contesting her $75,000 jury award. The county should forget about spending tens of thousands of additional dollars to appeal. It should be turning its legal firepower on White, not the victim, and insist he pay her damages and the county's legal bills.
Commissioners also need to plug a hole in county policies that enables an opportunist like White to take advantage of an employee. Commissioners hire their own aides. These workers are not covered by civil service protections. Ogden was caught in a Catch-22. Attorneys hired by the county faulted her for not reporting the harassment until after she was fired. But the trial judge, Richard Lazzara, pointed out in a blistering order that political hires like Ogden have no way to protect themselves from the "unfettered whim and caprice" of their elected bosses. Today the job requirement could be sexual favors; tomorrow it could be soliciting political favors or destroying public records.
Commission aides are public employees whose salaries and benefits are paid by taxpayers. They are not private employees of their elected bosses, and they should not be forced to appeal a workplace dispute to the very person whose conduct is at issue. Commissioners should ensure that aides are covered by fair workplace rules. That won't fix the damage White caused, but it could keep another such costly spectacle from happening.