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Kevin White's trip from family outcast to top of Hillsborough politics to bribery charges

The men had business. On April 5, 2007, they met at Chops Lobster Bar in Atlanta's upscale Buckhead neighborhood. The night was chilly as they took their seats in the warm-wood dining room.

On one side sat Andre Moses White, a former NFL tight end who was a principal in a newspaper in Georgia. On the other sat C. Blythe Andrews Jr., 77, a Tampa businessman, civic leader and publisher of the influential Florida Sentinel Bulletin.

The youngest man at the table was Kevin White, 42. Just five years before, he was a nobody, an outcast member of a politically powerful Tampa family. Against all odds he had climbed from bag boy at Kash n' Karry to elected commissioner in a county of 1.2 million people. Now here he sat, downing drinks with powerful men, money in his pocket and a woman at his side.

The woman was 22. Her name was Alyssa. She had known these men barely a week. She had nothing useful to add as they talked about developing a piece of prime real estate near downtown Tampa, a deal that could net them millions of dollars. She was beginning to suspect the real reason she had been invited to Atlanta.

She would later convince a jury that White asked to share her hotel bed, and that would begin his unraveling: a lawsuit, a drubbing at the polls and, this month, a federal indictment on bribery charges.

But for a moment, Kevin White had arrived. Finally, he was a big shot.

• • •

Kevin White was born illegitimate.

That's important to know because that fact has been the central theme of his life and his short and tumultuous public career. Track his lineage back two generations and you come to one of the most revered names in Tampa history: Moses White.

Born in the turpentine fields near Glory, Ga., Moses White founded the Cozy Corner on Central Avenue in Tampa, where he sold three hot dogs for 25 cents to poor children in public housing and fed young musicians like Ray Charles. Dick Greco, mayor in the late '60s, remembers asking his friend how he could make a profit selling hot dogs so cheap. Moses White swore the mayor to secrecy, then said he didn't make a profit. He just didn't want people to feel ashamed of being poor. That's what endeared him to the people of Tampa, and by turn, the politicians.

"Nobody running for any office would even consider running before talking to Mr. White first," said Goosby Jones, an old friend who moved to Las Vegas after years in the city's community relations office. "He's always been the guy, the go-to person."

Someone else came into his restaurant as well, a feisty little boy named Kevin.

Born out of wedlock to Moses' son Gerald and Sheryl O'Neal, both teenagers, Kevin would fetch barbecue from Cozy Corner. Everyone knew the boy was blood, and he lived within walking distance, but he wasn't invited to family gatherings, his uncle Reggie White said. His mom would park outside and send little Kevin in, and sometimes the elder Mr. White might slip the boy a few dollars.

"Family was everything," his daughter Bernadine White-King said last month. "He taught each one of his children that."

When Moses White died in 1984, his five sons were pallbearers.

Alton was a fullback at Florida A&M, became Tampa's first black mayoral candidate and later executive director of the Tampa Housing Authority. Andre broke into the National Football League. Gerald, also an outstanding athlete, married and had two children. People said the youngest, Reggie, was better than them all.

At a time when there were almost no black elected officials in Hillsborough County, Alton White and Andrews, like their fathers, were part of a close circle of friends who politicians, black and white, courted for advice.

"If you wanted to get connected, if you needed anything downtown, those were the people who knew how to make it happen," said Tom Scott, who moved to Tampa in 1980 and would later become chairman of the City Council and County Commission.

Andre and Gerald would spend parts of the 1970s and early 1980s traveling the world with musicians Marvin Gaye and James Brown, Andre as manager, Gerald as a bodyguard.

Kevin White shared the powerful name, but not the perks. As he said years later in a sworn deposition when asked about his father, Gerald, and the Moses White clan:

"I was raised in a totally different environment and family, so I can't give you specifics on the Whites, in depth and details the way you'd like because I'm assuming that you would assume this is a regular father-son relationship — from birth until now, which is not the case. I'm still playing catchup, if you will."

In 1984, the same year Moses White died, Gerald White was convicted of federal kidnapping and conspiracy charges and sentenced to six years in prison. In 1985, Reggie White was sentenced to four years in federal prison on charges of obstructing justice and lying to federal investigators and grand jurors.

Kevin White had recently graduated from King High School, where he was a good student with plenty of friends. "He was always ambitious," said classmate Bob Reina. "He had an outgoing personality."

"Kevin was interested a lot in law enforcement back when he was in high school," said his teacher Bob Minthorn. "He was well behaved, very interested in law studies."

He worked as a bag boy at Kash n' Karry, then at a car dealership. He was a Navy recruit at 17, discharged after 56 days.

In 1990, he joined the Tampa Police Department. The same year, uncle Reggie White was sentenced to death for fatally shooting his girlfriend with a shotgun. The same year, his estranged father, Gerald, pleaded guilty to drug trafficking after a golden lab named Kilo found $3 million worth of cocaine stitched into the seat of a Volvo.

Kevin White was "a good, hard-working officer," a supervisor wrote on one of his evaluations. But in four years, he tallied three letters of counseling and two written reprimands. He chased a burglary suspect, whose car slammed into a van, injuring the driver. Police officials decided that White had no valid reason for the pursuit and that he should have stopped to help. Then officials accused him of trying to shake down a citizen. White and the man had been involved in a wreck, and White later went by the man's house in uniform to demand $500. Before the police chief could decide White's punishment for the chase, he quit.

He later said it was to take a job that paid "five times more," with Second Chance Finance, a used car dealership, where he worked two years before hiring on with St. Pete Jeep Chrysler Plymouth, which paid about $150,000 a year, according to financial disclosures.

Meanwhile, the White family was also starting a new venture. In 1997, Gerald's son Gerald Jr. opened Moses White and Sons Bar-B-Que on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City. The family chipped in, waiting tables and mopping floors. Gerald Sr., fresh out of prison, tended slabs of slow-cooking ribs. They hung a portrait of Moses White on the wall.

A few years later, Kevin White sought another job with the city. In 2001, he filed papers to run for Tampa City Council. Then came a challenger, Bernadine White-King, Kevin's aunt.

White-King ran an ad in the Sentinel Bulletin that included a photo of her father. "Continuing the Moses White Tradition of Public Service," it read. Another ad had a photograph of White-King surrounded by her extended family.

"Kevin, if you will, is the illegitimate child who is not deemed a real White and who the family thought is going to run on the legacy of Moses White," Kevin White told a reporter during the race. "I would never run on a legacy of which I was not a part of. It's like stealing."

His own father, Gerald, endorsed White-King. "I love my sister and I'm with her."

How must that have felt?

"That cut me more deeply than anyone will ever know," Kevin told a St. Petersburg Times reporter, wiping tears from his eyes.

Kevin's mother helped him campaign door to door. He raised $58,000, more than Moses White's daughter. He put $25,000 of his own money into the race. He visited churches on Sundays and drove hundreds of miles on Election Day. He made the runoff and three weeks later he defeated his aunt.

• • •

He sat at the end of the dais at City Hall, 38 years old, always in a suit and tie. He spoke with confidence. He seemed concerned with helping minority business owners get a fair shot at government contracts.

He soon made headlines for trying to secure 23 percent raises for the City Council in a budget meeting attended by no citizens or reporters. When the news broke, White's colleagues abandoned him.

Then in 2004, it was learned that as a candidate White had received $500 campaign checks from a real estate swindler named Matthew Cox and 16 of his business associates. The FBI and Tampa police had been investigating the businessmen for using fake identities to buy properties and secure loans.

Two years into his City Council term, White announced he would run for County Commission as a Democrat. He called it a "Continued Commitment" in campaign literature. Some noted the salary difference: Council members made less than $30,000. Commissioners made more than $80,000. Once again, his aunt filed to run. But with less than a year before the 2006 election, she bowed out.

"With her out of the race, maybe we can focus more on the issues rather than the perceived family issue," Kevin White said.

He won. But the bad press piled up.

He started a security business that advertised limousine services for VIPs, even though he served on the agency that regulates cars for hire. He agreed to pay $9,500 in fines for buying designer Italian suits with campaign money. He carried a gun into the County Center.

Nothing fazed him. He ate power lunches at Miguel's, Valencia Gardens, the Bamboo Club. He swapped stories with the old guard at Donatello as they talked about Tampa's "black mafia," according to later testimony.

And sometime during this political ascendancy, White began to reconnect with the father who had wounded him.

"I think he always wanted to be accepted into the roundtable as the grandson of Moses White," said Reggie White in an interview Friday at Okeechobee Correctional Institution. "Maybe if Kevin had been around the Whites and they showed him the love, he would have felt the full effect of feeling like a White."

When Goosby Jones came back from Las Vegas to visit, he met up with his old friends. Alton White, Andre White, Gerald White. And for the first time Kevin was there.

"I knew everybody there well except Kevin. I said, 'Good to meet you, man.' He said, 'Goosby, I know you, I've met you before.' It's funny that I never knew him."

In March 2007, White was looking for a legislative aide to keep him abreast of issues in his district. He got a call from Alyssa Ogden, a 22-year-old former cheerleader from the Florida Keys with no degree.

Over lunch at Valencia Gardens, she told him she was a quick learner. White told her he had other candidates, but he liked her desire to succeed. He said he was going with his gut.

She jotted a note in her devotional planner:

Got the job

Beneath that was a Bible verse from the Old Testament:

Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth

• • •

Kevin White sat on the witness stand in 2010, his legs rocking back and forth. He kept stealing glances at the jury as he offered one explanation after another.

Sitting at a table before him was Alyssa Ogden. She had lasted seven months in the job. White testified that he fired the young aide for deficiencies he thought she would overcome.

Ogden told a different story. She said she had endured months of sexual advances from White and was fired for rejecting him. "Just give me one chance," he would say, repeatedly. The advances started the second day on the job, she said, when White invited her on an overnight business trip to Atlanta.

They met at Chops with Andrews and White's uncle. Hours later, White showed up at Ogden's door and said the hotel was booked. He asked to sleep with her.

Ogden recalled: "He said, 'I just don't like to sleep by myself. I'm an only child.' "

White's defense touched off bitter recriminations in Tampa's African-American power circles. He claimed he was facilitating a liaison between his young aide and the elderly, ailing Andrews.

Just like that, White found himself alone. His uncle Andre recanted his alibi, telling attorneys White did not sleep at his house that night. Andrews' attorney called the allegation from White "laughable." Andrews' newspaper would later run a photo of all of Hillsborough County's elected black leaders except one. Kevin White had been cropped out.

"I treated this man like my own grandson," Andrews said in videotaped testimony. "His grandfather was one of my friends. His daddy was one of my friends."

"Big shot," he called White.

Gerald White, the long-estranged father, arrived at the courthouse each day in a pair of dark sunglasses and watched his son testify, watched his son lose, watched a jury award Alyssa Ogden $75,000. The black political establishment had turned on Kevin White. His father had not.

• • •

The men had business. Different table now, this one at a LongHorn Steakhouse. On one side sat a man named "Darryl," who said he ran a towing company. Across the table sat a man who was broke.

Kevin White was facing foreclosure on a home he owns in Nebraska Heights. Hillsborough County was suing him for some portion of the nearly $500,000 they spent on his sexual harassment case. He owed his own attorney $155,000.

The date was June 4, 2010, and a County Commission election loomed, one he would lose badly.

Months before, according to a federal indictment, two men discussed forming a wrecker business. One of them, George Hondrellis, told the other he had heard that permits were for sale by the agency that regulates cars for hire. Hondrellis just happened to know a man named Gerald White, the father of the county commissioner who chairs the agency.

The other man had become an informer for the FBI. The two set up a series of meetings — father and son, Hondrellis and the informer. The informer gave Gerald White a 2003 Lincoln Navigator. Gerald asked for "dinner money" for his son. The informer introduced Kevin White to "Darryl," an undercover FBI agent.

Kevin White told "Darryl" he could expedite his permit, too. He mentioned his campaign. He said he needed money.

White reviewed the application and said it wouldn't be a problem.

Audio and video recorders captured the scene inside the steakhouse, as the FBI agent handed $5,000 to the big shot.

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson and staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Kevin White's trip from family outcast to top of Hillsborough politics to bribery charges 06/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 25, 2011 11:22pm]
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