Ex-towing company owner recalls unwitting part in FBI sting of Kevin White

TAMPA — Mike Baker said Tri-County Auto Towing Inc. was his baby. He formed it with a silent partner and had high hopes it would provide a steady income.

"I wasn't going to get rich," Baker said. "I'd be able to live like I wanted to live."

Then former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White was arrested on corruption charges. Suddenly, Tri-County was all over the news. What Baker heard sickened him.

His baby was part of the elaborate FBI sting. Now, a company Baker said he nurtured, spent countless hours and thousands of dollars operating, was being portrayed as something that existed only to nab White.

In a two-hour interview just days after White's conviction on federal corruption and bribery charges, Baker recounted what he said was his unwitting role at the heart of an FBI sting.

He has been depicted in court and the media as the "straw man" owner of Tri-County, a guy who operated the company at the behest of a silent partner bribing a county commissioner.

Baker denies wrongdoing and says his reputation has been unfairly maligned.

"I thought I was the owner of Tri-County Towing," Baker, 53, said on Monday. "I really did. I thought I was doing all the right things. Now I'm hearing it was a dummy business, that I was the dummy owner.

"Well, I guess I was the dummy all right."

It was a real company whose two trucks towed real cars. Two drivers were hired. Money was earned, an office maintained.

All the while, Tri-County's president hadn't a clue it was all a clever ruse.

•••

Baker, a big man with a jovial manner, has worked in the towing industry since 1981. In that insular world, everybody knows everybody.

So it was no surprise when Pete Rockefeller, owner of Pete's Towing in Tampa, asked Baker in early 2010 to partner with him in a new towing venture that became Tri-County, Baker said.

Baker said Rockefeller wanted to get Tri-County on lucrative lists of companies used by law enforcement. But Rockefeller had been thrown off the list in 2007 after complaints.

But Baker might just be able to get on it.

So Rockefeller became a silent partner and Baker leased two of Rockefeller's tow trucks, Baker said. But Baker's application to the Public Transportation Commission was in Baker's name alone. A PTC license was necessary to get on the law enforcement list.

Baker said he saw nothing improper with the arrangement. "People have silent partners all the time," he said. "It ain't like you're doing anything illegal."

Baker didn't know Rockefeller was an informant helping the FBI as it investigated White.

White would ultimately be charged with accepting at least $6,000 in bribes to help Rockefeller and another tow company owner, George Hondrellis, get on the law enforcement list. Baker said he knew nothing of the bribes, which U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill's office confirmed.

O'Neill, who prosecuted White, declined comment for this story.

At the PTC hearing where the agency approved Tri-County's license, Baker said he wanted to thank PTC executive director Cesar Padilla, but Padilla was tied up. So Baker thanked White, the PTC chair.

"Don't thank me," Baker said White answered. "Thank Mr. Padilla."

Tri-County opened an office on U.S. 301 in Riverview. Even with the PTC license, Tri-County never made it on any law enforcement towing lists. Still, Baker said the company did well enough, often grossing more than $3,000 weekly.

But by August 2010, Baker said he parted ways with Rockefeller. The two argued because Baker had been talking to businessman Doug Richards, who was interested in joining Tri-County.

Rockefeller was irate, Baker said. Rockefeller had a history with Richards, who filed a successful foreclosure action against him in 2009. Baker said he never again talked to Rockefeller.

Richards, who could not be reached to comment, stepped in to become Baker's new partner.

Baker said Richards acquired two used tow trucks to replace the two that Baker had been leasing from Rockefeller. In return, Richards got 80 percent of the business and Baker 20 percent.

Rockefeller and his partner in Pete's Towing, Ian McGeehan, said they believed Baker sold a majority stake in Tri-County to Richards for a few thousand dollars.

"It's hilarious," McGeehan said this month. "How do you sell a company you don't really own? It doesn't have any real assets."

State records show Richards' wife, Elsa, was installed as Tri-County's vice president while Baker remained president.

Baker said he didn't make a dime in the arrangement with Richards. He said Richards was putting up the tow trucks, so the 80-20 split made sense.

In January 2011, Baker filed a complaint with the PTC accusing Rockefeller of using the two trucks he had taken back from Tri-County. The trucks still had the company logo painted on its doors. Now, Baker accused Rockefeller of illegally towing cars in Tri-County's name, which Rockefeller denied.

"He does not have a license for that name. I do," Baker said in the complaint. "I am president of the corporation."

Rockefeller apparently tried to remedy that problem. His girlfriend registered Tri-County as a fictitious name, state records show.

Baker's partnership with Richards soon went sour, too. Baker and Richards' company eventually ceased operations.

Then in June 2011, White was arrested. Tri-County was all over the news. Baker's wife asked, "What's going on?"

Baker answered, "I don't have any idea."

The FBI interviewed him, but Baker said they told him little. It wasn't until White's trial that he even learned Rockefeller was an FBI informant.

Baker was upset when he learned from the media Rockefeller was paid $44,000 for his undercover work, and $30,000 for his expenses.

Baker said he spent thousands of dollars of his own money on Tri-County. "I felt like I was set up and lost my butt," Baker said. "Pete made money, and I don't get nothing. What about my expenses?"

But what especially angered Baker is that the FBI left him in the dark so long. He said the agency should have trusted him, perhaps even using Baker undercover just like Rockefeller.

"Why wouldn't they bring me in?" he asked. "I'm on the up and up. What am I going to do, run around and tell everyone about the investigation?"

It was, he said, his company, too.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Reach William R. Levesque at levesque@sptimes.com.

Ex-towing company owner recalls unwitting part in FBI sting of Kevin White 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 11:05pm]

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