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Former Hillsborough County attorney vows to take ethics case back to court

Former Hillsborough County Attorney Renee Lee vowed Friday to take her ethics case back to court in the latest twist of a long, public saga over a $1,700 pay raise.

Florida's Commission on Ethics imposed a $5,000 fine and a public censure for Lee, who gave legal advice that led to the pay raise for herself and County Administrator Pat Bean.

Lee's attorney, Mark Herron, called the ruling an "injustice," and said his client will take the case to the Third District Court of Appeal.

Commissioners seemed troubled over whether Lee deserved such a penalty, but were hesitant to defy the recommendation of an administrative law judge who suggested Lee's testimony lacked credibility.

The Hillsborough County Commission must approve employee pay raises, but Lee advised her colleagues that commission approval was unnecessary because the raise was an award offered to all department heads that met financial benchmarks.

Panelists agreed that Lee gave the wrong legal advice. But it's unclear whether she was corrupt or merely careless.

"I find it kind of sad that over $1,700 someone would place themselves in such a vulnerable position," said Commissioner Matthew Carlucci. "The word 'corrupt' that's a tough word, I wouldn't want that word used on me."

The panel’s decision is the latest turn in an epic three-year battle over an ethics scandal that cost big money and caused plenty of hand-wringing from Hillsborough’s County Commission, which fired Lee in June 2011.

Herron argued passionately before the ethics panel, suggesting a lack of “substantial, competent evidence”  that Lee intentionally committed malpractice.  He also said the administrative law judge put too much weight on testimony from a witness who admitted to only a hazy memory of what happened.

The panelists seemed moved by the arguments, but not enough to jump through the legal hoops required to overturn the judge’s decision.

Commissioner Edwin Scales, himself a lawyer, cast the one dissenting vote.

“When did the legal malpractice rise to the level of an ethics violation?” he said. “What is the standard in which screwing up on legal advice crosses the line?”

Dover activist George Niemann, who filed the complaint against Lee, said Lee deserves to be punished and he may follow up with a complaint to the Florida Bar.

“The advice she gave was questionable and self-serving,” he said. “That’s not acceptable.”