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Tom and Laurel Lee prepare for their next chapter as she becomes Secretary of State

Emails & Opinions

Joe Henderson: Stepping aside should be easy call for Judge Laurel Lee

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Laurel Lee was formally asked Monday to recuse herself from hearing a lawsuit against the All For Transportation sales tax. A first-year law student would probably agree it’s the best way for Her Honor to avoid potentially messy legal optics.

Why?

Well, consider …

Point 1: Lee’s husband, Republican state Sen. Tom Lee, was unabashedly against the referendum voters approved in November to increase the county’s sales tax by 1 percent to pay for a myriad transportation needs.

He actively worked against the proposal. He has supported groups like No Tax For Tracks that worked against the proposal. He said he believes it is bad policy. Voters disagreed, the lawsuit was filed, and this mess fell into the Honorable Mrs. Lee’s lap.

Point 2: As Janelle Irwin Taylor of Florida Politics reported, one of the attorneys arguing against the tax in this case has significant financial ties to Lee. She cited records showing that attorney and real estate investor Martin Garcia donated $1,000 to Lee’s Senate campaign in September and Garcia’s real estate firm, Pinehill Capital Partners, matched that amount in a separate donation on the same day.

Garcia is now one of two attorneys handling the lawsuit against the tax, filed by Republican Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White.

The idea of a donor to her husband’s campaign arguing for the judge to deep-six a tax he opposed would also not be a good look.

White filed his lawsuit earlier this month even though 57 percent of voters approved raising their own taxes to pay for much-needed projects. His legal argument is against a citizen’s oversight committee that was part of the package.

The oversight committee would be there to ensure politicians spend the money as voters intended over the next 30 years.

White basically argued that the lawsuit was necessary to save voters from themselves because they didn’t know enough specifics about the case.

I wrote then that it was a bush-league move by White, and it’s still a bush-league move. It’s a classic sour-grapes case, and it has the potential to make the county’s already miserable traffic system worse.

The governing board on which White now sits, by the way, has shown no appetite for a comprehensive approach to solving the congestion that often is cited as the area’s biggest negative in attracting new businesses.

That might change, by the way, because, as a consequence of the November election, Democrats finally control a majority of Commission seats — unless, of course, Stacy White wants to file a lawsuit against that, too.

As for Tom Lee, while I disagree with his opposition to the measure, he had the right to argue against it, and I know him well enough to have no doubt it was based on sincerely held principles. But that also complicates any outcome for the lawsuit.

That’s why I don’t think anyone will be surprised if Circuit Judge Laurel Lee steps aside and avoids any appearance of bias. It seems about as clear a decision as anyone in her position could make.

Until she does that, though, well — she hasn’t.

Written By

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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Publisher: Peter Schorsch

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Renzo Downey, Rick Flagg, A.G. Gancarski, Joe Henderson, Janelle Irwin, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Bob Sparks, Andrew Wilson.
Email: Peter@FloridaPolitics.com
Phone: (727) 642-3162
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St. Petersburg, Florida 33704

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