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Federal jury convicts former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White of 7 corruption charges

TAMPA — He has been a cop accused of shaking down a man while in uniform, a councilman who bought suits with campaign cash and a commissioner who sexually harassed a young aide.

Now former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White has a new heading to close out the checkered public service section of his resume: criminal.

A federal jury returned guilty verdicts Wednesday on seven of 10 charges White faced in his public corruption trial, accused of accepting bribes from tow truck operators seeking favors.

U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill told jurors White had abused his position, promising assistance to people who gave him money. He said after the verdict that they upheld the principle that elected officials have a duty to represent all the public, not just those who pay.

"We cannot have public officials acting corruptly," O'Neill said afterward. "It perverts our system of justice and the democratic process."

The 12 jurors deliberated six hours over parts of two days before finding White guilty of conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud and lying to the FBI, much of it captured surreptitiously on recordings. He was acquitted of two bribery charges involving alleged payments to his father, and a mail fraud count.

White, 46, a Democrat and former Tampa City Council member who served one term on the Hillsborough County Commission before his re-election defeat last year, showed little emotion. His wife, Jennie, wiped tears in the gallery behind him. After the jury was dismissed, he hugged her for several long moments.

"I'm going to focus on my family," White said softly, almost inaudibly, as he left the courthouse. That's all he said.

A video of White accepting a $5,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent mesmerized jurors, who replayed it in their deliberations, and guaranteed his conviction, said juror Linda Friedt.

Friedt, 49, of Lakeland said that video and hours of secretly recorded audio were so convincing it would have made little difference had White testified in his own defense.

"I like to think the best of people," Friedt said. "So I was disappointed in Mr. White. But the facts are the facts. I'll just be praying for him."

White's sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 27. He was permitted to remain free until then under restrictions in place since his June arrest, including forfeiture of his passport and guns.

Latour Lafferty, a former federal prosecutor, estimated that sentencing guidelines call for a prison term between 41 and 51 months. But the guidelines are advisory, and the judge could go higher or lower.

White was accused with his late father, Gerald White, of accepting $8,000 in bribes and a used Lincoln Navigator for helping three prospective wrecker company operators get on a lucrative rotation list police use when they need a vehicle towed.

At the time, from 2009 to 2010, White was a county appointee to the Public Transportation Commission, which regulates cars for hire, serving as its chairman. The PTC certified towing companies for the rotation list.

One of the operators was Peter Rockefeller, a confidential informer, the other an undercover FBI agent. The third, George Hondrellis, is separately facing similar charges as White.

The trial featured hundreds of hours of audio recordings captured by Rockefeller and the agent. One caught White accepting $1,000 from the agent and promising to help with his application. A separate video showed White in a car outside a LongHorn Steakhouse taking $5,000.

O'Neill credited the recordings with helping secure the convictions. Jurors "had the opportunity to hear, word for word, what was going on," he said.

Lead defense attorney Grady Irvin Jr. had characterized White as a public servant helping people navigate bureaucracy. He cast Gerald White as a "master manipulator" who hatched the scheme to cash in on his son's position, accepting $2,000 and the Navigator.

Irvin said the payments made directly to White were accepted as campaign contributions. They never showed up on disclosure reports, though, something he dismissed as a state matter.

Irvin said it was too early to say if he would appeal. He said in an interview White would never have become ensnared in a bribery scheme but for his father.

"That does not mean Kevin is not accountable for his actions," Irvin said, suggesting his client's activity is best understood in the context of his heated and unsuccessful 2010 re-election campaign.

"The campaign took him to areas I don't think he had any idea he would go to," Irvin said. "It was never about money for Kevin personally. It was about trying to stay in office and doing what he loved the most."

White was born into one of Tampa's best known black families. His paternal grandfather was Moses White, a barbecue restaurant owner active in civic life and friend to a succession of Tampa's mayors.

But he was born out of wedlock, with his father and the rest of the White family largely disowning him. He rose to political office largely on his own, showing himself as a scrappy campaigner who had no trouble raising money to promote his name.

In his first election, for City Council, he was challenged by his aunt, Gerald White's sister. Still, he won easily.

But the feel-good, boot-strap story would largely end there.

White touted his record as a military veteran. But a stint in the U.S. Navy lasted only 56 days.

He boasted of his police work. But he resigned after four years with the Tampa Police Department after getting sued after an improper car chase that resulted in injury. He also faced an accusation of shaking down a man with whom he had a car crash for $500 while in uniform.

Several contributions to his City Council campaign would turn out to come from make-believe donors. He would later admit using money raised in his first County Commission campaign to buy designer suits, masking the expenditure as campaign consulting fees.

White was in the same courthouse two years ago facing a lawsuit by former County Commission aide Alyssa Ogden. She said White fired her for refusing his multiple sexual advances, and was awarded $75,000.

The county is suing him for some of the more than $400,000 in legal bills from the case.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Dan Sullivan and Shelley Rossetter contributed to this report.

Breakdown of the Kevin White verdict

Conspiracy to commit bribery: Guilty

Bribery ($1,000 paid to Gerald White): Not guilty

Bribery ($1,000 paid to Gerald White): Not guilty

Bribery ($1,000 paid to Kevin White): Guilty

Bribery ($5,000 paid to Kevin White): Guilty

Conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud: Guilty

Honest services mail fraud: Not guilty

Honest services wire fraud: Guilty

Honest services wire fraud: Guilty

False statement: Guilty

Timeline of events

April 1994: White resigns from the Tampa Police Department after four years following a determination that he violated chase policy, injuring a civilian.

March 2003: White wins election to the Tampa City Council, beating his aunt.

November 2006: White is elected to the Hillsborough County Commission.

February 2007: The Florida Elections Commission finds probable cause that White misused campaign funds to buy suits and filed false disclosure reports.

August 2009: A federal jury finds White fired a former commission aide for refusing his sexual advances and awards the aide $75,000.

November 2010: White leaves the commission after an August primary defeat by Les Miller.

June: White arrested on federal bribery charges.

Nov. 9: A jury convicts him on seven of 10 counts.

Federal jury convicts former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White of 7 corruption charges 11/09/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 10, 2011 12:13am]
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