Renee Lee terminated by Hillsborough County Commissioners

The discussions on Lee's future began promptly as scheduled at 9:45 a.m. on Thursday, where, before Lee's side of the story that has made the rounds in the local media, Commissioner Mark Sharpe called for a motion that Lee be fired with cause, saying that the trust between her and the board had been broken irrevocably.


When reports first broke in the Ybor City based weekly newspaper La Gaceta by Kevin White ally Patrick Manteiga about a lunch between Lee and White, Lee initially downplayed the import of the story, telling fellow commissioners who inquired that it was a crazy coincidence that the two had met at Roy's restaurant.


But subsequent text messages that were produced showed that in fact Lee, who lives in Riverview, had contacted White when she learned that he and his wife were purchasing a home near her in that part of Eastern Hillsborough - despite the fact that he has said he is destitute and cannot pay his legal fees from his sex harassment trial (Hence the county's lawsuit against him - with White then suing the county over the issue).


Then the Tampa Tribune and the St. Pete Times earlier this week reported from the transcripts that White gave a week ago, where the former commissioner - who was trounced in his bid for re-election for commissioner last August - seemed to completely throw his alleged friend under the proverbial bus, painting a picture that depicted Lee as almost a stalker. White also revealed that there had been a second lunch between the two (a lunch that never came up during Thursday's discussion).


When Lee, who only began defending herself after Sharpe said he was convinced that too many incidents had occurred under her watch for her to continue, finally spoke, she blasted the idea that the board would take the previously discredited White's sole point of view for what happened as the objective truth.


"Let me assure you as vigorously and publicly as possible, that I have not compromised my professional ethics," she began. "I have not compromised the county's lawsuit against the former commissioner White. Surely fairness would require more than just mere accusations, that I have done something wrong."


Lee said that her "empathy" with White had been misconstrued as undermining the county, when she maintained she did no such thing.


Lee also mentioned (but not by name) Democratic party activist Janee Murphy, who was also present at the now infamous lunch at Roy's. She did so by mentioning how she was surprised to read Patrick Manteiga's La Gaceta column about her "cozy lunch alone with the former commissioner."


"I did not understand why the third person at lunch had not been referenced, and I called the former commissioner, and demanded that he call his friend and he get his story straight." Lee said, adding that White had suggested to her that the "third person" (Murphy) had set her up. "You can only imagine the confusion and betrayal that I felt."


In retrospect, Lee said, it was obvious that White had been the one to set her up - she said to damage her, and possibly the county's lawsuit against him, by consulting with his friend and newspaper columnist Patrick Manteiga about it, but not his attorney, who press reports indicated was initially aghast upon learning that White had met with the county attorney without his approval or knowledge.


Lee said her lunch with a "former boss" (White) was a courtesy for how he had stood up to her in 2010, when she was under the gun after reports surfaced that she and former administrator Pat Bean had given themselves one percent pay raises, an act that led to an FDLE investigation.


Later, Lee's attorney, Robert McKee, argued that the county should not fire Lee for cause, since they did not have the full facts, and argued it would be a joke to simply rely on White's testimony. "We’re not going to sit still and let the record remain according to Mr. White’s version," he said, adding that there would be legal action if Lee would not be granted her severance for time served.


Unlike last summer, when Lee's tenure was under threat and a number of members of the black community came together at the board's meetings to show their support, the chambers at County Center weren't that crowded as the meeting began.


But though there may not have been the same number of visible supporters, the two people who spoke up for her did so powerfully.


First up was activist Michelle Williams (who recently announced she is challenging Arthenia Joyner in the Democratic primary for state Senate in the Tampa area), followed by Delano Stewart, the 75-year-old long time Tampa lawyer who, among his many accomplishments, was the first black assistant public defender in Hillsborough County. He called Lee's record "impeccable," and bashed the board for giving any credence to what White said in his deposition, adding that the black community was "outraged" by the BOCC's treatment of her.


(Afterwards Stewart was even more outspoken, telling this reporter and the Tampa Tribune's Mike Salinaro that what occurred to Lee was nothing short than "the core of racism").


Commissioners Sharpe and Kevin Beckner mentioned the previous investigation by the FDLE regarding the pay raise issue and the subsequent investigation into e-mails as previous demerits for Lee that prompted them to not be able to give her the benefit of the doubt over this new controversy.


(The BOCC voted later on Thursday to award Lee $156,014 in severance pay).

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As anticipated, the Board of Hillsborough County Commissioners voted Thursday morning to terminate County Attorney Renee Lee after nearly seven years of service, after press reports surfaced over the past several weeks of a secret meeting she had with former County Commissioner Kevin White, who the county is currently involved in litigation with.

As part of the vote to fire her, attorneys for Lee and the County then began discussions immediately afterward to determine if they could come up with a settlement package for her. The county's charter permits the board to fire Lee without cause - but means she would be entitled to a severance, which would cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Thank you for allowing me to serve on this board, " Lee said stoically, immediately after the commission unanimously agreed 7-0 on Commissioner Ken Hagan's motion to fire Lee but have the county's attorney retained for this issue - Richard McCrea, work with her attorney, Robert McKee on a possible settlement.

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