Former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White pleads not guilty to corruption charges, gets free attorney

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, center, leaves the federal courthouse in Tampa on Thursday with attorney Grady Irvin Jr., left, who will be paid by taxpayers now.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, center, leaves the federal courthouse in Tampa on Thursday with attorney Grady Irvin Jr., left, who will be paid by taxpayers now.

TAMPA — Kevin White says he is broke.

The former Hillsborough County commissioner appeared in court Thursday and pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and corruption charges.

White, who left office in November after being trounced in the Democratic primary, told a judge he had shopped around for an attorney but could not find anyone he could afford.

So U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Wilson appointed private defense lawyer Grady Irvin Jr. to defend White. Irvin was already White's attorney, though now taxpayers will pay him.

White told a reporter as he walked out of the courtroom, "I have no comment at all."

He said little during the brief hearing except when the judge asked him to confirm that he could not afford an attorney.

White responded: "No, sir, your honor. I cannot."

Irvin presented the judge with a list of lawyers White had contacted Wednesday, with the fees they quoted to take the case. The judge, who sealed the document from public view, asked whether White, 46, had called everyone on the list.

"Yes," he answered. "I contacted each one."

White was indicted last month on 10 felony charges, including bribery, conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and lying to an FBI agent. The indictment said White and his late father, Gerald White, schemed to take $8,000 in bribes and a 2003 Lincoln Navigator from three men. The charges carry maximum sentences ranging from five to 20 years in prison.

The three men said they wanted a permit from the Public Transportation Commission, which White chaired, to be put on a lucrative list of towing companies doing work for the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, an indictment said.

Unknown to White, who was once a Tampa City Council member and former police officer, one of the men was a federal agent and another was a government informant. The third was George Hondrellis, owner of Tampa City Towing, who also faces bribery, conspiracy, wire fraud and mail fraud charges.

Hondrellis, 45, who wore a shirt emblazoned with "Harley-Davidson Motorcycles" to Thursday's hearing, had not yet retained an attorney. So the judge postponed his arraignment for a week.

Lawyer Chinwe Fossett, who came to court with Hondrellis, said Hondrellis may be close to hiring the Tampa firm headed by prominent lawyer Barry Cohen. Cohen could not be reached for comment.

While the judge set the case for trial in August, it is widely expected that it will be postponed to allow attorneys more time to prepare. Irvin told reporters, "We've got a lot of work to do."

Robert O'Neill, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said afterward that he will personally try the case.

Irvin is on a list of about 150 lawyers who are qualified to be appointed to cases for defendants who are indigent or in situations in which the Federal Public Defender's Office has a conflict of interest. The judge did not explain why he did not appoint the public defender, although he indicated that Irvin was already familiar with the case. A spokesman for the public defender's office could not be reached for comment.

St. Petersburg lawyer Patrick Doherty, who practices in federal and state court, said it is not unusual for a federal judge to appoint a defendant's own attorney.

This is done, he said, to avoid the delay and expense of bringing in another lawyer who knows nothing of the case.

"Judges aren't going to take a hard line and insist on reinventing the wheel," Doherty said. "This sounds like a very complex case, and they would want to appoint someone they know can handle it."

Lawyers on the list have their fees capped at $7,500. On more complex cases, they can seek court approval to exceed the cap and charge on an hourly basis.

"This is a very complex case, and I'd be flabbergasted if (White's attorney) didn't file a motion to exceed the cap," Doherty said.

Irvin is a veteran lawyer well-known in legal and media circles. He is one of the attorneys who represented St. Petersburg minister Henry Lyons, former president of the National Baptist Convention USA, on racketeering and grand theft charges. Lyons was convicted in 1999.

More recently, Irvin represented Cortnee Brantley, girlfriend of Dontae Morris, who is charged with killing two Tampa police officers last year. Brantley was charged with failing to tell officers that Morris was a felon in possession of a loaded gun.

A judge dismissed that federal charge, and prosecutors appealed. A judge then allowed Irvin to withdraw from the case because Brantley could not afford to pay an attorney to handle appeal issues. The public defender's office was appointed.

White, who is free on bail, put on sunglasses as he walked out of the courthouse, a gaggle of camera crews and photographers recording his every step.

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

Former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White pleads not guilty to corruption charges, gets free attorney 06/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 1, 2011 1:19am]

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