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  1. Transportation

Bus agency calls for judge married to Tom Lee to disqualify herself from transit tax lawsuit

The Hillsborough County Area Regional Transit authority has filed a motion for Circuit Court Judge Laurel Moore Lee to disqualify herself from a lawsuit challenging the county's new transit sales tax. Lee's husband, State Senator Tom Lee, R- Brandon, is a vocal critic of the tax. The lawsuit was filed by Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White.    (SCOTT KEELER | TIMES)
The Hillsborough County Area Regional Transit authority has filed a motion for Circuit Court Judge Laurel Moore Lee to disqualify herself from a lawsuit challenging the county's new transit sales tax. Lee's husband, State Senator Tom Lee, R- Brandon, is a vocal critic of the tax. The lawsuit was filed by Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White. (SCOTT KEELER | TIMES)
Published Dec. 17, 2018

TAMPA —The county's bus agency is asking the judge assigned to a lawsuit challenging Hillsborough County's new transit tax to disqualify herself from the case because she is married to state lawmaker Tom Lee, one of the tax's most vocal critics.

David Smith, an attorney representing the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority, on Monday filed a motion to disqualify Laurel Lee, who was assigned to the case by a computer that uses an algorithm to select from about 11 eligible judges for civil cases. The motion points out that her husband, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, campaigned against the tax.

Lee's picture and quotes were used on campaign mailers slamming the tax as doing "almost nothing for people in the suburbs and rural areas." The senator also sent text message blasts urging people to vote against the referendum.

"Any reasonable person or entity faced with these facts would experience a well grounded objective fear that he or she would not receive a fair hearing in front of a judge with the relationship described above," the motion states.

"Clearly, this is not intended in any way to be a denigration of Judge Lee," Smith said. "We think it's important others that don't know the quality of our judiciary be comfortable that the decision made was a fair and impartial one."

The tax is estimated to raise about $302 million per year. HART's share would be about $136 million.

Its legal filing comes as records show that Stacy White, the Republican commissioner suing to overturn the $15.8 billion, 30-year tax, is also getting legal help from Martin Garcia, an attorney and prominent supporter of Tom Lee.

Garcia, a former member of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, is a regular donor to local Republicans. And he has also brought along the high-powered Tallahassee political communications firm Bascom Communicating and Consulting to advise White on how to win public support for his legal challenge.

A member of the Florida Bar, Garcia works for real estate investment firm Pinehill Capital and was state co-chair for Pam Bondi's campaign for Florida attorney general in 2010.

Campaign records show Garcia's law firm donated $10,000 to Lee's political action committee, The Conservative, in 2017. The same committee also got $10,000 from Myrna Haag and $5,000 from Marshall J. Garcia, Martin Garcia's sister and brother. And Garcia also donated $1,000 to Lee's campaign in September.

Speaking before the motion by HART was filed, Chief Hillsborough Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said it will be up to the circuit judge to decide whether to recuse herself. Laurel Lee did not return a call seeking comment.

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"She's an outstanding judge," Ficarrotta said. "I'm sure she'll handle the case in the appropriate manner."

White's legal challenge, filed Dec. 4, questions whether a new citizens committee set up to oversee how the tax is spent usurps the authority of elected officials.

Although the lawsuit will be decided in a court, White said he wanted guidance from a professional communications firm since it is such a high-profile case and a complex legal issue to explain to the public. The new tax was approved by 57 percent of voters in the recent midterm election and takes effect Jan. 1.

"I'm not worried about my reputation one iota," White said. "This is to communicate the issue to the public so the public understand what the suit means and what it does not mean."

Emails show Bascom Communications advised White on a recent column he wrote that was published in the Tampa Bay Times. The firm boasts high-profile companies and organizations among its clients, including Associated Industries of Florida, AT&T, The Everglades Foundation, Florida Association of Health Plans, Florida Power & Light, Anheuser-Busch and ABC Liquors, according to its website. President Sarah Bascom also worked on the campaign of Florida Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis.

Bascom declined to say what other help her firm will give White but confirmed that the company is working for free.

"We wouldn't normally do our services pro bono unless it was something we believed in," she said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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