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COUNTY TO PAY WHITE VERDICT

Hillsborough County commissioners leave it to him to appeal the harassment ruling.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White is on his own if he wants to appeal a jury's verdict that he sexually discriminated against a former aide.

His fellow commissioners voted Wednesday not to appeal the jury's verdict that the county was jointly liable in the case. The vote was 6-0 with White abstaining.

Commissioners also voted 5-1 to pay former aide Alyssa Ogden and her attorney roughly $290,000 in damages and legal fees. In exchange, they will ask Ogden's attorney for a release from any future liability should White decide to appeal.

A majority of commissioners expressed a desire to put an end toan embarrassing distraction and limit taxpayers' exposure in the case. Otherwise, they said, if they appeal and lose, taxpayers will see the bill for the lawsuit go up.

"We stop the bleeding," said Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who led the push for a resolution. "This way, what Mr. White does does not have an effect on us. Let's get out of this."

Chairman Ken Hagan, the lone vote against the settlement offer, said he felt conflicted in the matter.

"I, for one, would like to have closure on this issue," Hagan said. "(But) I do not believe taxpayers should be responsible for Commissioner White's actions."

A federal civil jury awarded Ogden $75,000 in damages last month, finding that White, a Democrat, fired her for refusing his repeated sexual advances. Ogden's attorney, Ron Fraley, is seeking $216,000 in reimbursements for his fees and costs, though he offered to reduce the amount by $5,000.

The county's total cost for the case, including its legal fees, is nearly $500,000.

While he said he would need to see the details, Fraley said he would be willing to release the county from the case in return for full payment of Ogden's damages and his discounted bill.

"I don't see any reason why I wouldn't give them the release," he said. "That's the standard."

Commissioners stopped short of voting to sue White to get him to pay some of the costs of the case. They instead decided to have county attorneys negotiate with his attorneys to recoup some of the money.

That maneuvering came when Ferlita, for the third straight meeting in which the topic was discussed, tried to get White to say whether he'd be willing to pay some amount. He met the question with silence.

He did offer some of his most expansive public remarks on the case, saying that he very likely would appeal the verdict if commissioners vote to sue him.

White said he believes he has several reasons to seek a new trial. He cited one instance: Ogden's sister, Krystal, was caught listening at the courtroom door before she was called to testify.

County Attorney Renee Lee said White might also opt to challenge the makeup of the eight-person jury. It had seven white members, six of whom were women. White is black.

While voicing his belief in the judicial system, he said the jury came up with the wrong verdict in this case.

"I never, ever have harassed any employee of mine," White said. "Never would I. Never will I."

He also said a judge's order, along with a statements from a juror interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times, make clear that the county had liability in the case by failing to have detailed hiring and firing procedures for commissioners' aides.

Reached afterward, he declined to say whether he will appeal and noted that the case has cost him money already for his own attorneys. He said he will need to weigh the cost of an appeal with his chances for success.

The commissioners' vote Wednesday does carry some future taxpayer risk. If White were to appeal and win a new trial in which he prevails, the county could be obligated to reimburse him for his legal costs.

Then again, any appeal would keep the case alive well into next year, when White is facing reelection.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

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