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Beth Leytham at the center of everything, including controversy

TAMPA — Beth Leytham was once crowned the "Damage Control Queen" of Tampa Bay because of her media savvy, big-name clients and ability to navigate the spheres of business and government.

Now the queen is in damage control mode herself.

Her rapid-fire opinions, relationships with important players and insider knowledge — long seen as strengths — have been recast by critics as flaws, even evidence of cronyism.

Questions about Leytham's influence have staggered Hillsborough County's proposed sales tax referendum that would raise billions for transportation. The sheriff is examining whether she helped steer a $1.35 million Go Hillsborough contract toward Parsons Brinckerhoff. The engineering firm is one of her public relations firm's private clients; it hired her for $187,000 to work on Go Hillsborough after winning the contract.

Leytham says she has done nothing wrong.

Still, her work over the past decade has resulted in an overlapping network of clients. She moves seamlessly from consulting work for private companies to advising public agencies to helping the campaigns of local elected officials who sometimes hire or regulate her clients.

Critical reports from WTSP 10News have left Go Hillsborough reeling and Leytham on the defensive. Behind those reports Leytham sees anti-tax hard­liners looking to derail attempts to bring mass transit to the bay area and rival spin doctors trying to undermine her or one of her close allies, Tampa mayor and potential gubernatorial candidate Bob Buckhorn.

"If those who are so captured by the green-eyed monster spent more time on their businesses and less time envying me," she says, "they would have more successful businesses."

Then, she adds:

"Please use that quote."

• • •

Fierce.

It's a word friends use to describe Leytham's energy, drive, sense of loyalty and candor.

"Bulls---," is what Leytham told a reporter soon after a story appeared this spring challenging the accuracy of a claim by Buckhorn's re-election campaign. Leytham volunteered on that campaign.

She's just as direct with those inside government. She once texted Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist that he was "disingenuous" and "overly opportunistic," that "folks recoil from you" and that he should lay off the "sleazy overtones." Crist's offense? He was somewhat critical of a youth sports complex proposed by Commissioner Ken Hagan, who, like Buckhorn, often seeks Leytham's counsel.

The Times reviewed thousands of Leytham's emails and texts. They paint a picture of a tireless worker, an advocate for her clients and a trusted confidant who provides shrewd advice. She'll end an email with a smiley face when she's on your side or sign off with a cutting dig.

"Totally unvarnished," is how Buckhorn describes the feedback he gets from the adviser he sometimes calls "Sparky." He has known Leytham for about 25 years, since he was a top aide to then-Mayor Sandy Freedman and she was a paralegal at the politically connected Tampa law firm of de la Parte & Gilbert.

In the high heels she favors, Leytham looks taller than 5-foot-1. She is outgoing and upbeat. Talking policy or politics, she easily toggles between wonky details and salty language.

"A spitfire," said Tori Byrd, a longtime friend from their law firm days. Byrd remembers Leytham as "very smart," someone who works hard and "sees the big picture."

She took home depositions at night and sought extra work to raise a daughter as a single parent.

"Some people take offense to her directness," Byrd said, "but as a friend, for me, she's the person you want to call."

• • •

Leytham, 53, learned to take a hit at a young age.

She grew up in the small city of Connersville, Ind. Her mother was a homemaker and her father a mailman. She has few vivid childhood memories.

But one sticks out.

Her father was a disciplinarian, and she was "mouthy."

"He would come to you and say, 'Take off your glasses,' and you would have to sit there," she said, "and then he would smack you in the face. And I sort of learned how to look someone in the eye and take that.

"It's one of those things that has made me maybe tougher, maybe more independent."

She left home, graduated from Ball State University and eventually settled in Tampa. She says she has no relationship with her parents.

Around 1990, Leytham went to work for Steve Anderson, a Tampa lawyer with a host of government and corporate clients. Anderson felt she had a knack for handling thorny political issues. He also encouraged her to speak her mind.

Her mouthiness became "a strength," she said. "And a distinguisher, if you will, in a world where people don't shoot straight."

From 1997 to 2003 she worked at the Downtown Tampa Partnership and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Under the tutelage of the late Deanne Roberts, chamber leader and public relations expert, Leytham took on clients of her own.

In 2003, she left the chamber and went full-time at her own PR firm, the Leytham Group.

Soon, she would be throwing the punches.

• • •

The Leytham "Group" is a misnomer. It is basically a one-woman shop she runs from a third-floor corner office overlooking N Tampa Street.

Over the years, her private clients have included Waste Management , red-light camera company American Traffic Solutions and the development group behind the Brandon Bass Pro Shop — all of which have done business with local governments.

She charges her public clients $150 to $175 an hour. The Times obtained invoices and contracts that show numerous government agencies have paid Leytham more than $840,000 since 2004.

She doesn't do work outside Tampa Bay. She has no interest in Tallahassee. She has no plans to grow the firm beyond herself.

"This is just my corner of the world," she said, "and I enjoy it."

Her clout in that corner has grown as she has amassed more clients. One of her first was Covanta.

In 2003, Covanta was building a $110 million desalination plant for Tampa Bay Water. And there were problems .

The plant wasn't ready on schedule. Tampa Bay Water said Covanta was at fault. Covanta said the agency was ignoring legitimate, unforeseen hurdles.

As Covanta debated its next step, one executive turned to Leytham.

"What do you think we should do?" he asked.

"I think it's time to throw a punch," she responded.

So they did. Leytham sent out a press release firing several shots at Tampa Bay Water.

Officials there were taken aback, according to an agency email, and concerned with the company's "extremely litigious" tone. That was Leytham's introduction to high-stakes public crisis management.

She has managed many other crises since.

When cracks were discovered under the Memorial Causeway Bridge in 2004, the bridge builder called Leytham to manage the fallout. When an elevated span of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway collapsed , the Expressway Authority brought in Leytham to rebuild public trust. When former Tampa Port Authority chairman William "Hoe" Brown was discovered to be a slumlord , Leytham helped him clean up his mess.

The latest crisis she is managing is herself.

• • •

The Hillsborough County Policy Leadership Group, a group of elected city and county leaders, met on Aug. 12, 2014, to talk about Go Hillsborough. At that meeting, County Commissioner Sandy Murman suggested the county search for a national engineering firm with transportation expertise and a history of championing successful referendums.

"Kind of like the people that did the InVision campaign for the mayor," Murman said during the meeting.

InVision was a $1.4 million plan for the long-term development of Tampa's downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. It was drafted by the global consulting firm AECOM, which hired Leytham to run the public engagement side. In 2012, she gathered ideas and comments from 800 people in meetings and 1,000 online.

Murman, Leytham said, had asked her prior to the PLG meeting how InVision worked. Murman and Leytham are friendly. They take exercise classes together.

A week after the PLG vote, Leytham sent a text to Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill. She told Merrill that she spoke with Hagan and Murman regarding "transpo and communications."

She discouraged Merrill from hiring public relations firms that were political in nature. "It starts everything off on yet another bad foot," she said.

"That is why transpo expert comes in with communications team in tow funded by county, and after engagement hands off to political team in 2016 funded by private sector," she wrote.

She also warned that the $53,234 set aside for Go Hillsborough planning was not enough based on her experience with InVision.

Merrill never responded to the text — she was listed in his phone as "Beth Latham."

Nevertheless, the county's path tracked her suggestion.

The county selected Parsons Brinckerhoff without a traditional bid process. Florida law allows municipalities to create a list of companies that can provide engineering, architecture, surveying and mapping services as needed. Parsons has been on that shortlist of 10 since 2012, when it was picked out of 53 applicants in a competitive bid process.

Parsons was chosen for the Go Hillsborough contract based on the PLG criteria: a national transportation engineering firm with referendum experience. Parsons hired Leytham to handle communications.

According to a county audit, two other companies on the shortlist fit that description. One was unresponsive and the other had worked on the failed Greenlight Pinellas initiative. Parsons got the contract, which would grow to $1.35 million.

Parsons is a well-known client of Leytham's. Around this time, the company and its vice president donated to several county commissioners and later to a city councilman who sat on the PLG.

These facts, as they were laid out, were first reported by WTSP 10News and were confirmed by public records. Leytham says they're taken out of context.

For one, several people were offering commissioners and Merrill advice.

Murman on Aug. 8, 2014, set up a meeting between Merrill and Adam Goodman, who leads Victory Group, a consulting firm that often assists Republican campaigns.

"He is the smartest guy for what we need and think he will help get us to the finish line," she texted Merrill the next day.

Mercury, another politically oriented PR firm, offered Merrill assistance in an Aug. 15, 2014, letter, and he spoke with them soon after, his schedule shows.

Critics believe that by simply reaching out to commissioners, Leytham was illegally lobbying for her employer, Parsons Brinckerhoff. The accusation has sparked a commission review of Hillsborough's lobbying rules.

Leytham has not registered as a lobbyist since 2013 when she reported representing Yellow Cab.

However, Hillsborough County defines a lobbyist simply as someone who lobbies. Under the same code, written in 1988, communicating electronically is not considered lobbying.

Leytham notes she never suggested Parsons Brinckerhoff in her text to Merrill. Nor did she ever infer the county should pick an engineering firm for Go Hillsborough off a short list without a traditional procurement.

Instead, she said she reached out as someone who had worked on transportation issues — including on a 2007 county task force — and who was worried Go Hillsborough was headed toward the same failure as the transportation sales tax referendum that was defeated in 2010.

"The reality is this: I was telling anybody and everybody what I thought about it," Leytham said. "I think there were a lot of people just like me paying attention saying, 'Oh my gosh, don't screw this up again.' "

The county auditor has concluded the Parsons Brinckerhoff contract was awarded legally. Merrill has asked the Sheriff's Office to double-check that work.

"Beth Leytham would've been brought in whether they went with Parsons or not because she was part of the previous initiative," said Crist, the commissioner she once castigated in texts, "and because she's the best PR and media relations person in town."

• • •

That explanation — that Leytham is the best at what she does — is a frequent refrain when defenders try to explain the gray areas she sometimes operates in.

"It's no different than building a baseball team," Buckhorn said of City Hall's desire to bring Leytham to work on another project after she finished with InVision. "You go find the best talent that you can. You put them on your team. You get things done. You win."

When the Selmon Expressway collapsed in 2004, it rocked confidence in the Expressway Authority. The agency hired Leytham in January 2005.

She was brought on at the recommendation of the agency's general counsel Steve Anderson, her former employer and friend — and without a competitive selection, according to board meeting minutes.

The board said the ongoing emergency justified the no-bid contract. Leytham stayed on for 20 months and was paid $163,000.

Why Leytham? Anderson said he wanted "to bring the best person into that organization, which needed that type of consultation at the time.''

At the Tampa Housing Authority, Leytham's longest-running government client, she helped craft the agency's message for low-income housing projects, including the West River redevelopment project.

In 2012, the Housing Authority chose McCormack Baron Salazar to develop the master plan for the West River redevelopment project, and AECOM — Leytham's client — was selected as the designated planner.

Leytham crafted the public agency's talking points and press releases explaining why AECOM was chosen. It was "well-qualified and well known both nationally and locally," she wrote.

At the Housing Authority, where she has been paid $450,000 since 2004, she sometimes serves as a liaison to Buckhorn, promising to talk to the mayor about an issue or relaying his opinions.

Sometimes, Leytham ghost-writes op-eds or provides campaign advice to politicians like Hagan or Buckhorn. She's no political operative, Buckhorn said, no expert in direct mail.

Instead, she works for free, and said she expects nothing in return. She volunteered for Buckhorn, she said, because "I was a true believer."

• • •

The recent controversy has resulted in the most public condemnation of Leytham in her career. Some, like tea party leader and anti-rail activist Sharon Calvert, have raised questions about how she operates. But at times the attacks have gotten personal as well. GOP activist Sam Rashid resigned from the Hillsborough County Airport Authority after he called her a "taxpayer-subsidized slut" on Facebook, a comment that drew a rebuke from Gov. Rick Scott. But Leytham is not their only target: Calvert and Rashid both oppose Go Hillsborough.

Leytham has a reputation for starting early, working late and understanding the nuances of public policy, economic development and other issues officials care about. But the high-stakes space she operates in is bound to create detractors.

"Public relations is a business where people expect to compete, but they get frustrated if somebody consistently gets the high-visibility projects, and I think Beth has frustrated people," said PR firm owner Tony Collins, a mentor and friend who worked with Leytham when she was at the chamber.

Leytham hopes she can go back to her old professional life once the Sheriff's Office investigation ends and her work on Go Hillsborough is complete.

She'll go back to her "corner" managing the next crisis for her big-time clients, back behind the scenes, where she prefers. Her 15-hour work days will shrink to a more manageable 12.

On a table in her office is a clock. The numbers have fallen to the bottom. The hands don't move. "Whatever," it says across the clock face.

Does Beth Leytham sleep?

"I sleep," she said, "and I sleep well."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com and Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com.

Beth Leytham at the center of everything, including controversy 10/17/15 [Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2015 12:13pm]
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