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Judge Laurel Lee, wife of Sen. Tom Lee, asked to recuse herself from transportation tax lawsuit

Judge Laurel Lee, wife of Florida State Sen. Tom Lee, has been asked to recuse herself in the lawsuit seeking to overturn the Hillsborough transportation sales tax voters approved last month.

Sen. Lee has been a vocal critic of the sales tax, giving his wife an apparent conflict of interest in the case.

A defendant in the lawsuit filed a motion to disqualify the assigned judge late Monday afternoon.

The documents are still being redacted by Hillsborough County Clerk of Court staff so further details are unavailable at this time.

The motion likely references Sen. Lee’s connections to the opposition group No Tax For Tracks. He allowed his likeness and personal quotes to be used in campaign mailers opposing the tax. Lee’s name was also used in text messages urging voters to oppose the tax.

Further, Lee’s senatorial campaign received several contributions from Martin Garcia and his business over the past several years. Garcia is one of two attorneys representing Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White who filed the lawsuit.

The suit alleges the new county charter created to raise the tax is in violation of state statute, which supersedes county charter. White argues the conflict leaves him uncertain as to his duties to follow state law in violation of county charter, or county charter in violation of state law.

At issue is the citizen-led oversight committee established under the charter that allows an unelected group of Hillsborough residents to have veto power over elected boards on spending using the transportation tax revenue.

Under the charter, that oversight committee is tasked with reviewing project plans to ensure they are consistent with terms of the charter. The referendum authors, a group of private Hillsborough Citizens who gathered more than 70,000 petitions to get the measure on the November ballot, said the oversight committee’s intent is to ensure the tax does not turn into a slush fund for elected officials’ pet projects.

In an interview, Lee acknowledged that he was opposed to the tax but was unaware of any financial contributions or expenditures that could further pose a conflict of interest for his wife.

This is a breaking story. Please check back for further information.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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