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USF fires candidate for state House seat

A USF official says the school's Florida Mental Health Institute must not appear to favor any political candidate.

By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The University of South Florida fired a former Democratic state lawmaker this week after Republicans in Tallahassee inquired about her plans to run for a legislative seat in Pinellas County.

Mary Brennan was fired from the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at USF after Republican legislators questioned USF's new president and a university lobbyist about Brennan's plans to run for the House District 51 seat she once held.

Brennan got the news Tuesday evening in a phone call from David L. Shern, dean of the institute. That day, new USF president Judy Genshaft was touring the Capitol, meeting lawmakers.

During the visit, Genshaft and USF lobbyist Kathy Betancourt called Shern in Tampa to confirm Brennan's candidacy, Shern said. Shern said both women said they had spoken with "several people" in Tallahassee who asked if Brennan was running and if so, whether she would stay on the USF payroll.

During the call, Betancourt mentioned state House Rep. Leslie Waters, whom Brennan wants to unseat this fall. Betancourt told Shern only that Waters is sponsoring a bill that would help USF and other universities by allowing them to collect tuition via credit card without imposing fees on students, Betancourt said in an interview Thursday.

Waters said Thursday that she did not ask Betancourt, Genshaft or anyone else about Brennan's employment. Any suggestion she pressured USF to fire Brennan is "wrong, false . . . and appalling," Waters said.

"I certainly do not care where any of my opponents work. Everyone needs to work," Waters said. Waters won Brennan's House seat in 1998 after Brennan lost a campaign for the state Senate.

Neither Genshaft nor Betancourt named other lawmakers who asked about Brennan, Shern said, but he assumed they meant Republicans. Genshaft also wanted to ensure that Brennan's dismissal was consistent with university policies, Shern said.

It was.

Since March 1999, Brennan has been director of community development for the institute's department of aging and mental health, an hourly position she said paid $54,000 annually. Hourly workers, in contrast with contractual employees, are not specifically covered under the USF policy that governs employees who run for elected office.

Yet even that policy allows USF to fire an employee whose candidacy might conflict with USF's interests. Brennan's candidacy does just that, Shern said.

The Florida Mental Health Institute has a $26-million annual budget, mostly provided by the state. To maintain credibility and preserve its mission to strengthen mental health services throughout Florida, it must not appear to favor any political group or candidate, Shern said.

Brennan's firing did not have anything to do with her performance at the institute, Shern said, where she did "a wonderful job."

"People (in Tallahassee) expressed concerns, but there were no demands or threats," Shern said. "It's exactly those concerns that made us worry about how the institute would be perceived as non-partisan, and made us take this step."

Though Brennan was fired on the day Genshaft visited the Capitol, the concerns about her candidacy did not begin with the new president, Shern said.

Brennan mailed her election papers to Tallahassee almost two weeks ago, she said. After questions from lawmakers, Betancourt called Shern on March 16 to inquire about Brennan's plans.

In response, Shern confirmed with Brennan's supervisor on Friday that she was indeed a candidate. The "press of business" prevented him from talking to Brennan until Tuesday evening, he said.

Genshaft did not return three telephone messages Thursday.

Brennan believes USF was pressured to fire her by Republican lawmakers who oppose her candidacy, primarily Waters. When Shern called her to break the news, Brennan said he told her that "it puts the institute in a compromising position because you are running against a sitting member of the Legislature."

Shern said Brennan's recollection "does not sound inconsistent with the point I was trying to make."

Asked about other lawmakers who inquired about Brennan's job, Betancourt recalled only one by name. State House Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, asked Betancourt on Monday or Tuesday if she had heard about Brennan's candidacy.

"There was really no concern. I just asked (Betancourt) if (Brennan) was going to stay on," Fasano said Thursday. "I think what you're asking for is was there any pressure. I can assure you, absolutely not."

It is not unusual for state legislators to hold jobs at public universities and community colleges, or for candidates to keep their jobs during the campaign.

Rep. Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg, is an associate vice president at St. Petersburg Junior College. His former aide, Democrat Charles Justice, is a USF employee running for Hafner's seat this fall.

Justice is an assistant to the dean of the College of Education. Unlike Brennan, Justice has an annual contract and has been allowed to remain at USF during the campaign.

"They're going to try to say every which way," Brennan said, "but the fact is, I have been treated differently."

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