TAMPA — Both men had something in common.
They drove tow trucks. And, for different reasons, both had lost their place on a lucrative rotating call list police use when they need a vehicle impounded.
George Hondrellis told Peter Rockefeller he knew a way to get back in the game. Pay Gerald White, the father of former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, who led the agency that regulates wreckers.
"Kevin's gonna do what Gerald says," Hondrellis is heard saying on tape. "That's the guy who can tell Kevin what the f---to do."
The late Gerald White figured prominently in the opening day of testimony Tuesday in his son's corruption trial at the federal courthouse in Tampa. Prosecutors say White and his father conspired to collect $8,000 in bribes and a used Lincoln Navigator for helping Hondrellis, Rockefeller and an undercover FBI agent.
Rockefeller, owner of Pete's Towing, was wearing a wire, recruited by the FBI as an informer, and recording dozens of conversations that included him, Hondrellis, Kevin White and White's father. The father was a lingering presence through the day, his low, mumbling voice captured in many of the recordings but at times difficult to hear.
White's lead attorney, Grady Irvin Jr., promised Gerald White would play centrally in his son's defense as well. He told jurors it was Gerald White, out of his own self-interest, who initiated the scheme that would lead to his son's arrest on 10 counts, including bribery and conspiracy.
Irvin described a father who was absent from his illegitimate son's life until the age of 10. That year at Christmas, Irvin said Gerald White acknowledged his son's existence with a gift bicycle.
Police would take the bike from the younger White the next day as he rode it through his neighborhood. It was stolen. Gerald White would not take an interest in his son until years later, after the younger White had become an elected official, Irvin said.
"Gerald White is a lot of things," Irvin told jurors. "He's a con man. He's a shyster. He's a huckster. He's a manipulator. And he's a lousy father. … He never talked about Kevin White unless he was begging for money at the same time."
The centerpiece of the day's proceedings was the first of a series of secret recordings captured by Rockefeller from September 2009 until February.
U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill told jurors they will see and hear Kevin White, 46, captured on video and audio, accepting $5,000 from an undercover agent. The recordings played Tuesday largely featured Hondrellis, Rockefeller and Gerald White.
FBI Special Agent Deven Williams testified he met Rockefeller while investigating possible corruption at the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. The agency regulates tow trucks, cabs, limousines and other cars for hire. White served seven years on the PTC, much of it as its chairmen.
Williams acknowledged, under questioning from O'Neill, that the agency paid Rockefeller $74,000 — $44,000 for hundreds of hours of time over two years and $30,000 for costs including repair of his tow trucks.
The first recordings capture conversations between Hondrellis, who is charged with White but facing a separate trial, and Rockefeller.
Both owned their own towing businesses. Hondrellis lost a spot on the police call list because of his criminal record. Rockefeller was booted due to multiple complaints from people he towed.
Hondrellis is heard saying they could get back on the list by forming a new company with a dummy owner. He says others have done so by paying off the PTC.
And he says the go-to person at that time was Gerald White, a member of one of Tampa's most prominent black families and father of Kevin White. Hondrellis says he happens to know him.
The conversations are profane. Hondrellis repeatedly refers to the Whites with a racial epithet.
After multiple conversations, Hondrellis tells Rockefeller he has lent Gerald White $2,000, with the understanding it won't be repaid. A November 2009 recording captures Rockefeller giving Hondrellis $1,000, his share, provided by the FBI.
Hondrellis ultimately introduces Rockefeller to Gerald White, who in January 2010 introduces the two to his son. The younger White does little talking.
Rockefeller is supposed to give Gerald White another $1,000, but inadvertently gives him the wrong wad of bills, only $350. It was not clear from the evidence Tuesday whether the younger White witnessed the exchange.
After observing Gerald White's Cadillac Escalade is in disrepair, Rockefeller says he can help secure a 2003 Lincoln Navigator. White balks at the $8,500 asking price. So Rockefeller tells him he believes he can negotiate a price closer to $6,000, which he will pay, and give it to Gerald White in exchange for his assistance.
Rockefeller estimates the value of being on the police rotation at between $150,000 and $250,000.
"If I get in on the rotations, the $6,000 is meaningless to me," Rockefeller tells Gerald White.
But after three months of meetings, Rockefeller expresses frustration that the prospective business hasn't gotten started. Hondrellis, he says, is not doing what's needed to get a deal secured. He asks Gerald White for help on a separate towing business.
Gerald White died awaiting a heart transplant before his son was arrested in June. But on this day, he talked like a man in full.
"Pete, the cavalry is on the g--d--- way," Gerald White says.