Hillsborough County Commission fires attorney Renee Lee

06/02/11 Kate Bradshaw
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The past two years have spelled trouble for Hillsborough County Government, which saw three county employees leave after allegations of misconduct. Now, it’s the board’s attorney who’s being excused from the county building. It isn’t the first time Renee Lee has faced tough scrutiny from the board.

Even County Attorney Renee Lee herself said having lunch with disgraced former county commissioner Kevin White was a bad idea. The county is currently engaged in a lawsuit against White, who refuses to pay some of the legal fees the county incurred when a former staffer successfully sued over claims White sexually harassed her, then fired her for refusing his advances. Commissioner Mark Sharpe said meeting with a legal adversary is a mistake even a first-year law student wouldn’t make.

"i think she neglected her duty and I think it was an obvious and flagrant neglect."

Lee originally claimed it was a chance meeting. White, however, said in a deposition the two had gone to lunch twice. He handed over a text message she had sent him featuring details that could be related to the lawsuit. Last year, Lee came under fire for accepting a secret pay raise and allegedly accessing confidential emails relating to an ongoing investigation of the raises. Commissioner Kevin Beckner said the lunch meetings alone might not have been grounds for dismissal, but when he looks at it in context, a pattern begins to emerge.

"There's one question that I have to answer today. Is the circle of trust that we shared strong enough to maintain my support for you as our County Attorney? And the answer to that is no."

Much of the commission’s case against Lee revolves around a deposition former commissioner White gave. Commissioner Les Miller said that makes for a pretty weak case, given White’s reputation for being dishonest.

"We should be considering the credibility of the person that gave the deposition versus the credibility of a person that has sit here for 7 years and been our attorney and whether she has performed her duties adequately or not."

Valrico-based community activist Michelle Williams agreed.

"Y'all want to believe this man? The whole thing was a set-up. That man would chop off his own damn momma's neck to save his life."

Williams and others told the board they ought to be careful; that firing one of the foremost African-American government officials in the Tampa Bay region might send a distinct message to the black community. Veteran Tampa Lawyer Delano Stewart it would spell trouble for anyone on the board seeking reelection.

"This black community is outraged about your treatment of Miss Lee. And it's obviously is because you '...' her in the Bean case that you are being vindictive. But if you're vindictive you all always pay a price that you don't want to pay."

Not helping the county was Sharpe’s accidentally referring to Commissioner Les Miller, the only African-American on the Board, as Mr. White, also African-American.

"This is something you don't do. Now Mr. White, excuse me, Mr.Miller..."

County activist Marcella Osteen said dishonesty is dishonesty.

"She was acting as a conduit and when there should have been a thick wall between her office and Mr. White personally."

While most of the commissioners said they thought it was time the county part ways with Lee, who has spent seven years at her post and earns about $212,000 annually, they weren’t sure how. Firing her without cause would entitle her to a hefty severance package of more than $230,000 at a time when the county strapped for cash. The alternative would cost the county virtually nothing, but Lee attorney Bob McKee said the severance package outlined in Lee’s contract would be small potatoes compared to what the county would incur in legal fees if they terminated with cause.

Lee appeared to accept the fact she was leaving. She thanked her staff and the board, but maintained that she had done nothing wrong.

"It's disheartening that my expression of empathy would be construed as undermining the County's case. There is no credible information that proves that the County's case has suffered in any way or that I have betrayed my loyalty to the County."

After hours of closed-door negotiations, County Commission Chair Al Higginbotham and the attorneys for both sides settled on a number they’re confident will keep them out of court. County representative Robert McCrea said it’s halfway between what the county wants and the severance package outlined in Lee’s contract.

"It includes 50 percent which is dead center of the severance obligation so it represented each side coming half way and the only thing that is added to that is the accrued but unused vacation and sick leave which is a matter of right."

Higginbotham said the number still means the county will have to part with some money, but a lawsuit would probably have been even pricier.

"This number does fall within reason and or below the cost of potential litigation."

The board opted to look at how to search for a Lee’s replacement at a future meeting, and even discussed looking into privatization. Lee’s dismissal is the latest in a series of county scandals. First there was White’s sexual harassment suit, then the allegations against former County Administrator Pat Bean. She was fired, as was the county’s internal auditor. Just weeks ago, the county board overseeing transit voted to fire the head of Hillsborough’s transit authority.

Previous WMNF news coverage of Renee Lee

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