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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Hillsborough County hires two lawyers at $300 an hour for commissioners facing ethics complaints



TAMPA -- Hillsborough County will pay up to $40,000 on lawyers to defend two commissioners who face ethics complaints tied to a Go Hillsborough contract.

Commissioners voted Wednesday to retain the services of Mark Levine to represent Commissioner Ken Hagan and Mark Herron to represent Commissioner Sandy Murman. Each lawyer will receive $300 an hour, capped, for now, at $20,000.

The vote came during approval of the “consent agenda” -- a time when commissioners unanimously approve dozens of items without discussion. Wednesday’s agenda included 59 consent agenda items. Murman and Hagan both voted “yes” to move the consent agenda items.

The Florida Commission of Ethics is investigating citizen complaints filed against the two commissioners related to a $1.35 million contract awarded to Parsons Brinckerhoff to conduct public outreach for the county’s transportation initiative, Go Hillsborough. Brinckherhoff is a client of Beth Leytham, a Tampa public relations consultant with close ties to Leytham and Murman.

Leytham was hired by Parsons as a subcontractor on Go Hillsborough for $175,000.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is finalizing an investigation into the Parsons contract and Leytham’s involvement to see if her political connections influenced the awarding of the deal. In a text message to County Administrator Mike Merrill in August 2014 leading up to the awarding of the Parsons contract, Leytham said she communicated with Hagan and Murman about “transpo and communications.”

Leytham, though, never mentioned Parsons Brinckerhoff in her communications with Merrill and has insisted she did nothing wrong. A county auditor previously concluded the contract was awarded legally.

Community activist George Niemann, one of several citizens who filed complaints against Murman and Hagan, objected to the county spending taxpayer dollars on lawyers before the state ethics commissions has completed its investigation.

“Are they spending our tax dollars when they haven’t even been charged yet?” Niemann asked during public comment. “It’s one mistake after another.”

County Attorney Chip Fletcher responded to Niemann's charge in a rare rebuke to a public comment, and said the move was in line with the commission policy to hire legal representation at the onset of an investigation.

“I don’t think it’s prudent or in anyone’s best interest to wait,” Fletcher said.

[Last modified: Wednesday, December 16, 2015 10:38am]


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