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    Office love loophole attacked

    Lawmakers, affronted by a Tampa scandal, rush to add "paramours'' to antinepotism ethics statutes.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 25, 2002


    TAMPA -- As news broke last summer that Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake had a longtime affair with an employee he supervised and helped promote, many people were shocked to learn the state law does not prevent such relationships.

    Now, the scandal that cost LaBrake his job and sparked state and federal investigations has prompted a push by lawmakers to close what they call a loophole in ethics laws.

    State Rep. Chris Hart IV, R-Tampa, said "outcry from the community" over the LaBrake scandal inspired him to sponsor a bill that would include lovers in the antinepotism law.

    "We had a situation that offended most people's sensibilities," Hart said. "We've been hearing from constituents on this issue, and they think something needs to be done."

    The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, and Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, is expected to be heard in the Rules, Ethics and Elections Committee soon. It could pass in the current session. Sen Victor Crist, R-Tampa, is the sponsor of a Senate companion bill.

    Under current law, a public official is forbidden from supervising or promoting "relatives," which is defined as everything from spouses to siblings and in-laws. But the antinepotism law does not specifically address romance in the workplace. In other words, an male official on the city payroll can conduct an affair with a female subordinate provided they do not marry.

    In LaBrake's case, the 50-year-old city housing chief carried on an affair with his 31-year-old girlfriend and top assistant, Lynne McCarter, while he was in the midst of a divorce.

    LaBrake gave McCarter good evaluations and recommended her for promotion over applicants considered more qualified by the personnel department. The couple is under investigation on charges they used their influence with the city's housing department to obtain a bargain deal on a luxury South Tampa house.

    The proposed antinepotism bill, lawmakers say, would include lovers, referred to in the law as paramours, and fiances and cohabiting couples.

    "We don't want anything like this to happen again," Murman said. "It doesn't make our community look very good."

    Crist said he was taken aback to learn, as details of the LaBrake-McCarter relationship emerged last year, that state ethics laws did not address it. "The statutes are five or six volumes thick," Crist said. "How many examples of this are taking place at the national and state and local levels?"

    Reached by phone Thursday night, LaBrake accused the lawmakers pushing the bill of "political grandstanding."

    "I don't think it's a pressing issue," LaBrake said. "Obviously there are much bigger issues at the state level, rather than the sky-is-falling mentality over personal relationships."

    The new bill has the blessing of the state Ethics Commission, which ruled Thursday that LaBrake had not violated antinepotism laws in his affair with McCarter, but then recommended tightening those laws.

    Commission members said they did not have enough information to rule on accusations that LaBrake and McCarter misused their public positions for personal gain.

    Those questions "remain open," said Chris Anderson, a commission attorney who helped write the report.

    The questions of impropriety may be answered, however, by separate investigations the commission is conducting into complaints by private citizens about LaBrake and McCarter.

    -- Times staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report. Times staff writer Christopher Goffard can be reached at 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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