TAMPA — Whether former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White is guilty of accepting bribes and lying about it to the FBI will be up to a jury to decide in coming days.
But, as with his 2009 sexual harassment verdict, the evidence in his criminal trial presents a damning portrait of White as a public servant — whether he committed crimes or not. And, again, White is his own worst enemy.
In dozens of surveillance recordings released last week, White admits plans to rig his reelection bid and accepts meal after pricey free meal from people seeking his favor. He drops expletives as casually as greetings, rates strip clubs like a wine connoisseur, and claims to control the agency that regulates cars for hire.
In one boastful chat with someone he barely knows, an undercover FBI agent, White claims to have been hunting the man accused of killing two Tampa police officers. His intent: not to make the streets safer, but to stuff the "m-----f-----" in the trunk of his car, summon the news media and sail to re-election.
The recordings capture a man who, when his guard is down, seems to exalt himself and place his own interests above all others. One dinner conversation captures the essence.
"I'm not interested in meeting any new people that aren't willing to help me," White tells his companions at Ruth's Chris Steak House before letting one of them pick up the $206 tab.
• • •
The companions that April 2010 evening are talking business with White, who, as part of his commission duties, serves on the board that regulates limousines, taxis and tow trucks.
One of them is Pete Rockefeller, owner of Pete's Towing, who wants White's help in getting a company on a lucrative list that police use when cars need to be towed. The other is Bob Vallee, who has known White for years and wants to open a limo service.
Rockefeller, an FBI informer, says he knows the sort of new friend White will like, a guy named Darryl Wilson, a wheeler-dealer from Atlanta who has invested in Rockefeller's business. Wilson has money and a willingness to spend it on people who help him make more.
White, facing a stiff challenge in the Democratic primary as he seeks re-election, makes clear he hasn't got time to meet with anyone not bearing checks. Donations aren't flowing as freely as they have in the past due to the sexual harassment case involving a former county aide.
"Bob will tell you, I will bust my a-- to help somebody," White says. "But when I call you, don't run from me."
Rockefeller is wearing a wire, and records the conversation as it turns from business to pleasure. He says he's heading to Panama and tells of past visits to South American brothels.
Now White is all questions. He wants to know how much it costs to purchase another human being, and for how long.
He says he'd like to take a trip of his own but can't afford it now.
"I can live vicariously through you," White says.
• • •
Vallee arranges dinner a week later, back at Ruth's Chris, with White and Wilson.
Wilson introduces himself as working in imports and exports, affecting the air of a hustler. He says he peddles everything from knick-knacks found outside subway stops to parts Rockefeller pulls out of mangled cars. He's actually an undercover agent.
The conversation turns to White's re-election campaign. He tells the agent, who like him is black, that he's facing a challenge from an "old school cat" named Les Miller, a black former state legislator, who lost a bid for Congress to Democrat Kathy Castor.
"She beat him like a runaway slave," White says.
He adds that he has been under severe news media scrutiny with "a Hubble," referring to the powerful space telescope. Not that he has a problem with it.
"The problem is just trying to, just trying to be good all the time, you know what I mean?" he says.
White, 46, laments that he can't even go to a strip club without worrying someone might see him, though he says he has one where he can "slip in the back door." Moments later, he is discussing various Tampa strip clubs, their cover charges and their different prices for services.
The agent picks up the $258 tab, but not before White repeats his line about not needing new friends who can't help him. In the car heading to another night spot, prosecutors say Wilson hands White $1,000, telling him that he can't vote for him "but I'll definitely support you."
• • •
That introductory meeting prompts a series of phone calls and dinner meetings between White and Wilson. Wilson checks repeatedly on the status of Rockefeller's towing application, as does Rockefeller.
Pete's Towing had been kicked off the law enforcement call list due to complaints from customers. Rockefeller's plan is to use one of his drivers as a "straw man" owner on his application to the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, on which White serves.
White never questions the subterfuge. And while his defense attorneys say he had no power to affect Rockefeller's application, that's not what he says on tape.
"I'm gonna walk that through for you," he tells Rockefeller in one call. "We're gonna make it happen."
"Yeah, I had (it) approved," he tells Wilson after the PTC endorsed the application without questions. "You know I'm in charge."
By this time, Wilson, whose real name is Darryl Williams, has ingratiated himself with White's late father, Gerald White. They play poker in a room behind Rockefeller's business when Wilson is in town.
He calls White to ask him if he thinks it would be hard to hire a couple of strippers to shake their rears and serve drinks.
"I don't think that'd be a problem at all," White says.
He tells his new friend that he has lined up a patsy write-in candidate for his general election. That would keep Republicans who are unlikely to support him from voting in his primary.
In July, Wilson calls to check on the status of a new application he has submitted after giving White $5,000. White says he has been busy with events in his district. Two police officers had been fatally shot, and White says he has been visiting "flea bag motels" trying to find the suspect.
"I wanted to catch the m----- f-----," he tells Wilson over another $246 meal at Ruth's Chris. "I was going to lock him up, throw him in the trunk of the car."
He tells Wilson he wasn't interested in a reward.
"I said, if we could bring him in, call this election over," says White, who was ultimately defeated in last year's election. "I'm the town hero."
"Stick a fork in it," Wilson said.
Times staff writers John Barry, Jodie Tillman and Jessica Vander Velde and photographer Daniel Wallace contributed to this report.