TAMPA — Some of the people closest to Pete Rockefeller thought he was acting strangely.
Rockefeller didn't normally gamble. Now he was playing poker with a new circle of friends that mystified his girlfriend.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked.
Few knew Rockefeller's secret. "I was trying to keep all these people buffaloed," he later said.
He ended up fooling everyone.
In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, his first after more than a year working as an FBI informer in the corruption and bribery investigation of former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, Rockefeller, 49, recounted his work "playing pretend" to hook White.
But the owner of Pete's Towing said he became disillusioned with the FBI's investigation because it stopped at White. He said he is sure others in towing and government are corrupting the towing business.
"I was encouraged in the beginning," Rockefeller said. "I thought I was going to make a significant change in the system, make it fair. I just thought we were going to catch a bigger fish, hit Kevin and wipe all the rest of them out."
He added, "There's no justice."
Rockefeller's is the voice federal jurors in White's public corruption trial have heard most frequently. If White is convicted — closing arguments are scheduled to begin today — it will be Rockefeller who is the most responsible for making the case.
A stocky man with short hair, Rockefeller testified last week wearing the same unbuttoned work shirt he wears all day.
The case against White may have begun in a dusty room out by the back of Rockefeller's towing operation on 40th Street in Tampa. He calls it his "man cave." The walls are painted black. A sign says, "The Pirate Club."
It's where Rockefeller, an undercover FBI agent, White's father — Gerald White Sr. — and others played poker, which Rockefeller grew to detest.
"I did my job for the FBI," Rockefeller said. "I had to work for them. I didn't have to like it. I didn't have to like the people I was dealing with."
In 2007, Rockefeller's company was thrown off the rotation lists law enforcement use when they need a car towed — from DUIs to accidents across Hillsborough.
Rockefeller disputes the reason stated by the Public Transportation Commission, which regulates wreckers, and the police. They said they received numerous complaints, including overcharging and illegal tows.
The complaints, he said, were bogus, a pretense for getting him booted off the list to make room for other companies more in favor with regulators.
It was a huge financial blow. Rockefeller's company lost more than $100,000 in annual income.
Rockefeller and his business partner, Ian McGeehan, saw it as part of the corruption endemic in the towing industry. In fact, McGeehan had complained frequently to the FBI.
By 2009, an agent finally visited the partners.
A plan was soon hatched, Rockefeller said, a test of his claims of industry corruption. Rockefeller would put the word out that he was willing to bribe his way back on the rotation lists.
"I went out, I talked to some people in the business," Rockefeller said. "I told them I was tired of fighting. I just wanted to pay my way. I just tried to make buddies with some people I knew who were getting favors and stuff. … I said, 'Hey, if I could just pay my way, I'd be a happy camper.'
"Then we just waited to see who would bite," he said — no particular target in mind.
One of the first bites might have come in his man cave.
He isn't positive on the timing. But Rockefeller thinks it was during a party, perhaps in 2009, that George Hondrellis, owner of Tampa City Towing, provided one of the first hints he had an "in" at the PTC who could help get him on the rotation lists.
Hondrellis would later be arrested and accused of being part of the bribery scheme. He will be tried separately from White.
Hondrellis later asked Rockefeller if he wanted to go in 50/50 on a new towing business, which wouldn't be in their names, that would get on the rotation lists.
Hondrellis, he said, had already paid $2,000 for help from the chair of PTC's board. He asked Rockefeller to pay $1,000 to cover his end.
The PTC chairman was Kevin White.
What followed in the months to come was a series of seemingly endless meetings with Hondrellis, then Gerald White and finally Kevin White himself.
Rockefeller wore an FBI wire, recording most conversations.
He said he wasn't fearful about doing so. He said his business had already been ruined and he had nothing to lose.
After a time, Rockefeller realized he was better at the role playing than he expected. He made easy conversation with the Whites, one moment talking auto repairs, the next business.
Rockefeller started carrying wads of bills to make the Whites think he was flush in cash.
At one point, Rockefeller said he paid what he thought was $1,000 cash to Gerald White as White sat behind the wheel of a car, Kevin White beside him.
Later, Gerald White called back because Rockefeller had mistakenly taken out the wrong wad of bills, paying about $300.
"Gerald called back and said he went to give Kevin his half and there wasn't enough," Rockefeller said.
In time, Rockefeller arranged the introduction of a businessman who might also want to get in on profits to be made in towing. The man actually was an undercover FBI agent named Darryl. From that point on, Rockefeller's part in the investigation slowed.
"Darryl had a better relationship with the Whites than me," he said. "He could get better evidence. I kind of dropped out."
Rockefeller received $74,000 from the FBI for his work, including $30,000 in expenses.
The poker games continued. But Rockefeller said he felt uncomfortable. These weren't his real friends. Often, Rockefeller just handed over the keys to the room and went home.
On the day in June earlier this year when White and Hondrellis were arrested, Rockefeller called his 17-year-old daughter before she saw him in the news.
"She was proud of me."
As he sat in his man cave, Rockefeller noted one thing that he had gotten rid of.
The poker table.
Reach William R. Levesque at [email protected]