November 21, 2011
Commissioners Hold Closed Session To Discuss Pat Bean Vs. Hillsborough County
Amidst the already frustrating budget woes that have been plaguing local officials, county commissioners met behind closed doors earlier this month in hopes of coming to discuss negotiations concerning former County Administrator Pat Bean and her pending lawsuit for her denied severance, a total of $278,023.
Scheduled to last about an hour, the meeting was attended by Chairman Al Higginbotham; Vice Chairman Mark Sharpe; commissioners Sandra Murman, Victor D. Crist, Les Miller, Jr., Ken Hagan, and Kevin Beckner; County Administrator Mike Merrill; Interim County Attorney Donald R. Odom; Richard McCrea; as well as a representative from Berryhill Court Reporting.
Sharpe would not comment on the meeting’s outcome, but said that the discussion specifically dealt with what action should the BOCC now take in connection with Bean’s denied severance, which will be announced once an agreement has been reached.
Bean was fired in June of 2010, after a discovery during an internal audit in 2009 that she gave herself and former County Attorney Renee Lee a one percent raise in 2007, without the knowledge or approval of the county commission.
The county reluctantly awarded her $191,737 for unused sick time and unused vacation time, but refused to pay her any severance because the county said she was fired “for cause.”
Sharpe has extensively argued his take on the issue, but said that he also has to work in harmony with the BOCC for the sake of the many.
“I am clear on this case as I have been from the beginning,” Sharpe said. “I do not think she should have received anything. The county acted in haste when they paid her last year as they wanted to end the bad press and thought that if they gave her some money she would go away and leave them alone.”
Both Bean and Lee’s employment contracts said that the BOCC had to approve any raises. The raises were disguised as productivity awards and were not supposed to be done as permanent raises.
Following the discovery of secret raises, Commissioner Kevin Beckner asked the Florida Dept of Law Enforcement to investigate if there was any violation of criminal law.It was at this time that community advocate George Niemann also filed ethics charges against both Bean and Lee with the Florida Ethics Commission, which began their own investigation (ethics violations are considered a civil violation based on FL Statute 112).
While the Ethics Commission worked on its decision, the FDLE decided not to file criminal charges against Bean and Lee.
“Big mistake,” Niemann said. “They said that they probably didn’t have enough evidence to get a conviction so they decided not to file charges. I told them that we should wait until the Ethics Commission ruled on their cases.”
In September of 2011 the Ethics Commission finally did rule in Niemann’s favor, stating that Bean and Lee had violated FL Statute 112 (Misuse of Public Position).
“The Ethics Commission ruling changes everything,” Niemann argued. “Bean’s employment contract, specifically excludes her getting any money if she commits an illegal act in connection with using her position to gain a benefit for herself, which means the county owes her nothing, including the $192,000 that they gave her. The contract eliminates that obligation if she broke the law.”
According to an unnamed member of the commission’s staff, the commission will tell Bean that they will not pay her anymore money, but that she can keep the $192,000 already paid if she agrees to walk away.
“If they give up on getting the $192,000 back, I’m going to chastise them for it,” Niemann said. “We citizens don’t deserve to have our money needlessly thrown away like that.”
Many may echo Niemann’s sentiments when he said, “We’ve got people struggling to pay their tax bills so this county can continue to provide critical services to our community. With all the financial problems we have to deal with, letting her keep that money is incomprehensible.”
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