Hillsborough County tightens rules, increases penalties for lobbyists after Go Hillsborough controversy
TAMPA -- Hillsborough County commissioners on Thursday tightened rules on lobbying and beefed up penalties for lobbyists who break the rules.
Under the new definition of a lobbyist, anyone paid by an outside organization or company to discuss an issue before the county with commissioners or staff -- either in person or through other means of communicating -- would have to register.
Previously, electronic communications like text messages and emails were not considered lobbying by the county.
The ordinance would also give the county attorney’s office more teeth to go after lobbyists who don’t properly register, and new punishments ranging from a warning on a first offense to six-month and year-long suspensions for third and fourth offenses, respectively.
On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that more than one in three lobbyists last year failed to properly register their meeting with commissioners. No action was taken against any lobbyists for violating the ordinance.
Commissioner Sandy Murman heralded the new rules as an “important first step.” Murman and Commissioner Ken Hagan both introduced amendments that increased the penalties for violations.
Murman and Hagan are at the center of a months long Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office investigation into whether influential Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham helped steer a $1.35 million Go Hillsborough contract to one of her clients, Parsons Brinckerhoff. The engineering firm then hired Leytham as a subcontractor.
Leytham has a personal and political relationship with both commissioners, and in the weeks before the contract was awarded, she texted County Administrator Mike Merrill that she spoke with Hagan and Murman about the transportation initiative. Leytham didn’t register as a lobbyist, and has since said she was not a lobbyist, in part because she communicated with commissioners electronically.
The results of the investigation are expected any day now. A previous review by the county auditor found the contract was awarded legally. Murman and Hagan also face ethics violations.
The new rules largely keep the onus on lobbyists to register their meetings with commissioners and staff. Echoing concerns from several residents who spoke during public hearing, Commissioner Victor Crist said that was backwards. He likened the changes to a “dog and pony show” that left the real problem unaddressed.
“The buck stops in our office,” Crist said, “and that’s where the reform needs to be.”
Crist briefly floated the idea of a $5,000 fine on commissioners, though it wasn’t clear what the fine would be for and he never made a motion to pursue it.
Murman shrugged off the criticisms.
“I think we are setting up the structure,” she said. “We can fill in more blanks as we go along.”