Monday is the deadline for defendants in the All For Transportation sales tax lawsuit to request that the presiding judge take herself off the case.
The question remains: Does Hillsborough Circuit Judge Laurel Lee have too big a conflict of interest to oversee the case in an impartial and unbiased manner?
The 1 percent transportation and transit sales tax was approved by voters in Hillsborough County last month.
Lee’s husband, Republican state Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, was a vocal critic of the All For Transportation initiative. His face appeared on opposition campaign mailers and his name was used in text messages urging voters to ‘no’ on the referendum.
But Lee’s involvement goes further than that.
Documents obtained from Hillsborough County through a public records request show one of the attorneys representing Stacy White in his case against the county and other constitutional and governmental offices that will receive revenue from the transportation tax is a major donor to Sen. Lee.
Tampa attorney turned real estate investor Martin Garcia is helping with the case. He personally donated $1,000 to Lee’s campaign in late September.
His real estate firm, Pinehill Capital Partners, donated $1,000 that same day. The year before that, the firm contributed $10,000 and another $10,000 in 2015, campaign finance records show.
There’s also a trail suggesting Lee might have used his own campaign resources to support the No Tax For Tracks campaign, which opposed the All For Transportation initiative.
No Tax For Tracks received $50,000 from the Social Justice Political Action Committee — $25,000 each on Oct. 26 and 30. That PAC is not affiliated with Lee, but two committees that are — The Conservative and Restore the Trust — made contributions to other committees that, around the same time, had disbursements that made their way to Social Justice.
The trail is convoluted and money trickled through at least four different PACs. Asked about the PAC disbursements, Lee said he didn’t know anything about them, but he acknowledged he actively worked to tank the All For Transportation campaign.
“I thought what was being done was selfish and would have no long term impact in most of Hillsborough County,” Lee said. “I thought it was bad public policy.”
Lee lamented that the tax did not include enough money for new roads, which are a vital part of transportation improvements in sprawling areas of Hillsborough County. Lee also has business interests in funding new roads. He works in land development.
It’s entirely possible Lee’s wife will in fact recuse herself from the case challenging the new tax, which takes effect next month.
A Stetson Law attorney specializing in recusal issues told Florida Politics earlier this month that Florida statute didn’t necessarily require her recusal, but that many judges choose to step away from a case when there is an appearance of conflict.
White’s lawsuit seeks to overturn the tax arguing the county charter it created is in conflict with already existing state law. At issue is the citizen-led oversight committee it requires. That committee is tasked under the new county charter with reviewing project plans from Hillsborough County, all three cities within the county and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority that would use revenue from the tax.
The committee would verify the projects met the parameters established under the referendum. That essentially gives the committee veto power over elected bodies, which White argues is against state law.
As of Monday afternoon, Judge Lee had not recused herself from the case and none of the defendants in the case have filed requests for her to do so.