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Ex-commissioner Kevin White's fall ends with sentencing Monday

TAMPA — Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White never seemed comfortable with the unending scrutiny of political life.

"I can't think of another politician in this town that has been on the front page of every major newspaper in the past two years more than I've ever been," White told a friend at a 2010 dinner.

"I didn't think that my life would be any more of (an) open book than it was when I was a police officer. How wrong I was."

To critics, it's fitting that White's complaint was being secretly recorded by a "friend" who was an undercover FBI agent.

A political career that opened nearly a decade ago closes Monday when a federal judge sentences White on bribery and corruption charges. White, 47, a man who battled family demons in an improbable rise to prominence, is almost certainly headed to prison.

His political career began when he won a seat on the Tampa City Council in 2003, and it followed a track of repeated controversy.

As a council member running for a County Commission seat, White used $6,100 in campaign cash to buy Italian suits. As a commissioner, he was accused of sexually harassing an aide.

And as chairman of the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission, a jury decided, he took at least $6,000 in bribes.

"I think White is probably the best example of the worst politician we could ever get to serve Hillsborough County," said community activist George Niemann, who has filed ethics complaints against White.

A jury convicted White in November of taking bribes from tow truck companies in exchange for his influence on the PTC, which he chaired.

U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill is expected to tell a judge sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of up to 63 months — just over five years.

White's attorney, Grady Irvin Jr., will argue for much less.

Tom Scott, a former Hillsborough commissioner and former City Council member, said White's story, beyond the scandal and headlines, is one of lost potential and promise.

And when politicians fall, Scott said, they do not fall alone.

"Kevin is a gifted and smart person," he said. "He could have gone much further than he did. It's a sad day for Kevin. But it's not just about him. His family is hurt. The community is hurt. It affects us all."

• • •

White was born out of wedlock, the son of Gerald White — a man who would later serve prison time for kidnapping and conspiracy. An uncle would be sentenced to death for a shotgun killing.

But White also was the grandson of the kindly Moses White, a much-beloved Tampa icon who operated the Cozy Corner restaurant.

Kevin White joined the Tampa police in 1990 but soon quit after a motorist said White tried to shake him down for $500.

White was in the auto sales business, but in 2001 he started campaigning for the Tampa City Council. An aunt ran against him. White won the race.

And controversy followed.

White unsuccessfully tried to secure a 23 percent pay raise for council members at a meeting attended by no citizens or media.

A real estate swindler said he made thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to White in 2003, though White was never charged.

White's ambitions, though, expanded. Two years into his council term, he filed to run for the County Commission. Again, his aunt challenged him. But White still won the seat.

And controversy followed.

White paid a hefty fine for buying suits with campaign cash. He formed a business that rented out limos even though he was on the PTC, which regulated vehicles for hire.

An aide said White sexually harassed her, and a civil jury awarded the woman $75,000.

It was during the runup to the 2010 re-election campaign that White became an FBI target.

The FBI had been alerted to possible corruption on the PTC.

The investigation soon involved both White and his father. Prosecutors later said both took bribes from tow operators, including one working as an FBI informer.

An FBI agent posing as a businessman who needed a PTC license met with White.

In a car, the undercover agent handed him $5,000 for his influence as PTC chairman.

For a politician who hated the spotlight, White was unwittingly in it again. The transaction was secretly recorded on video.

In 2010, White was resoundingly defeated in a Democratic primary even before the bribery scandal broke. In June 2011, he was indicted on federal charges, including wire fraud and bribery.

His father died earlier in 2011, otherwise he might have been charged, too.

• • •

The legal storm engulfed the guilty and innocent alike.

On Feb. 9, White's wife, Jennie, filed for bankruptcy. One of the family's two homes is being surrendered to creditors. Her husband did not join the bankruptcy, though it is unclear why. White and his attorney have declined to comment.

Frank Reddick, a City Council member who supported White, said the good done by the man should not be lost on Monday.

"I never heard any constituent complain about his service," he said. "He's done a lot of good for the community. It's a sad way to end his political career."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

Ex-commissioner Kevin White's fall ends with sentencing Monday 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 9:39pm]
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