TAMPA - A state appeals court has slammed the door on former Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee's attempt to clear her name against accusations she broke state ethics laws.
The Second District Court of Appeal, in a May 24 decision, affirmed a ruling last year against Lee by the Florida Commission on Ethics. The commission found probable cause that Lee broke the law by issuing a legal opinion approving a 1 percent pay raise for herself and others when she worked for the county. The commission fined Lee $5,000 and issued a public reprimand.
Unless the appeals court grants Lee a rehearing, she is essentially out of options and can only hope Gov. Rick Scott will reverse the order.
She previously challenged the ethics commission findings before a state administrative law judge. But that judge upheld the ethics commission, finding that Lee had used her "official position ... to secure a special privilege, benefit or exemption for herself (and others)," and that she did so with "wrongful intent."
Lee also faces a challenge on another front. The Florida Bar filed a complaint against her in January 2012 saying Lee violated bar rules by lying about the circumstances under which she had lunch with former county Commissioner Kevin White.
The lunch, in early April 2011, occurred when White and the county were involved in dueling lawsuits over who should pay legal costs related to a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against White by his former aide, Alyssa Ogden.
According to the complaint, Lee told the media and a sitting commissioner that the lunch was unplanned. Her story was shown to be false when text messages between Lee and White were released. County commissioners fired Lee after they learned about the lunches.
The bar complaint will be heard July 19 before Sixth District Court Judge Michael Andrews, who will act as a referee.
Andrews will listen to testimony from both sides and then make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court regarding whether sanctions should be levied against Lee, said Francine Walker, director of public information for the bar.
"We will be recommending sanctions," Walker said.
Lee could avoid the hearing, Walker said, by signing a consent agreement that could involve a fine.
Lee could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Scott Kevork Tozian, said Lee does not dispute that she told a commissioner her lunch with White was unplanned and later changed her story.
"Our position is she corrected that within a matter of a few days," Tozian said. "What's really at issue is how to view that. The bar has one interpretation of what that should result in and I have a different idea."
Tozian, who specializes in representing lawyers before the bar, said Lee's transgression does not rise to a level that deserves disbarment or suspension. He is seeking a lesser penalty such as diversion, where the accused attorney undergoes remedial training but doesn't have a mark on her record.
"On top of this, Ms. Lee has been through quite a bit before the bar got involved," Tozian said. "It has been a long road for her and one that's taken its toll on her. Like any good lawyer, she doesn't want anything against her on her record."