Wednesday, June 20, 2018
News Roundup

FDLE investigation of deal involving Zephyrhills City Council member Lance Smith reveals no wrongdoing

ZEPHYRHILLS — A state investigation of circumstances surrounding a partnership between the city and a company affiliated with City Council member Lance Smith to build a spec building has ended with no arrests.

A report released by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said prosecutors could find no evidence of a crime after reviewing the agency's findings.

"I'm certainly glad it's over," said Smith, who won with 68 percent of the vote on April 9 despite claims by his opponent, former council member Manny Funes, of wrongdoing. Smith, who said he was considering filing a defamation lawsuit against Funes when he made the investigation a campaign issue, said he wasn't sure now whether he would follow through on those plans.

"You have to ask yourself, 'Is it worth it?' " he said.

Funes said he had not seen a copy of the report yet so he didn't want to comment on FDLE's efforts. However, he said he believes that taxpayers were "taken advantage of" by city officials.

"In my extensive experience in law enforcement and life, this is a classic case of cronyism," said Funes, a former FDLE agent.

The case centered on a 50,000-square-foot speculative building that the city wanted to build to lure business to the airport industrial park. It was to have been started with a $400,000 no-interest loan from Progress Energy. Smith, a Realtor and building contractor, put in a $2 million bid for the project with two partners, and they won over another company. Smith was on the city Planning Commission at the time.

An agreement said the city and the company, CLS LLC, would split the costs.

But the economy soured, and the building never got off the ground. The City Council reimbursed Progress Energy for the loan amount. City Council members then voted in 2011 to forgive CLS for its half of the amount that had been spent, about $45,000. Members said that the city would benefit by keeping the site plans and other work product in case it ever revived the project. It also meant that the city could pursue the project without CLS if it chose to do so.

Funes, who had lost his spot on the council earlier in 2011, urged members to postpone the vote to pick up CLS's tab. Smith, who had won a council term after the project began, abstained and left the dais when the vote was taken.

Funes then questioned what he said was a lack of records on how the money was spent. He examined records and found that Smith and his partners had created a second company, LCS LLC, that was dealing with contractors. He tracked down several vendors that had worked on the project and found that their bills did not match what CLS was submitting to the city.

Funes then asked his former employer, FDLE, to investigate the disparity.

Agents spent more than a year on the investigation, which included questioning city officials, reviewing city files and subpoenaing bank records.

They found that while one partner, Steffen Aziz, did claim amounts over and beyond what was billed, it was for expenses.

"Mr. Aziz stated that the amounts invoiced included an increase in the invoiced amounts which covered the developer's time and expenses, he specifically listed fuel, insurance, man-hours in the project among other items," the FDLE report said. "Mr. Aziz stated that these expenses were legitimate costs in any development as no one can expect the developer to absorb all expenses and that the recordkeeping for each individual expense would be prohibitive."

City attorney Joseph Poblick, who filed several public records requests regarding the investigation and questioned the length of time it was taking, said he was glad it was over.

"We can close this chapter and move on," he said.

Comments
SB traffic on I-275 slowed in St. Petersburg after car jumps median

SB traffic on I-275 slowed in St. Petersburg after car jumps median

ST. PETERSBURG ó A car that is straddling the center concrete barrier is causing a visual slowdown Wednesday morning on Interstate 275.The incident occurred sometime around 7:30 a.m.The passenger side of the car can be seen hanging along the median o...
Updated: 9 minutes ago
Pope Francis criticizes Trumpís family-separation policy on migrants, says Ďpopulism is not the solutioní

Pope Francis criticizes Trumpís family-separation policy on migrants, says Ďpopulism is not the solutioní

Pope Francis stepped into a growing controversy over President Donald Trumpís immigration policies, criticizing the separation of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexican border and saying that "populism" and "creating psychosis" are not the way to resol...
Updated: 1 hour ago
The Daystarter: Republican response to immigration firestorm; donít let Yuengling name scare you; Hedman flattered, but unfulfilled

The Daystarter: Republican response to immigration firestorm; donít let Yuengling name scare you; Hedman flattered, but unfulfilled

Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what to know today.ē Thereís no more denying it: summer is here. The forecast calls for highs near 90 degrees for the foreseeable future, coupled with afternoon showers, according to 10Weather WTSP.ē As y...
Updated: 1 hour ago
What historically high lumber prices mean for Florida home buyers

What historically high lumber prices mean for Florida home buyers

Blame a lack of rail cars in Canada or not enough semi trucks in the United States. Forest fires didn’t help. Tariffs played a big role, too. Even the buoyant economy takes part of the rap for frothy lumber prices, which hit all-time highs las...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Citizens considers hiking homeowners insurance rates about 8 percent

Citizens considers hiking homeowners insurance rates about 8 percent

For the second year in a row, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. is asking state regulators to approve hefty rate hikes because of an abundance of non-weather claims that end up in court. If approved, the average rates for homeowners covered by Citize...
Updated: 2 hours ago
What historically high lumber prices mean for Florida home buyers

What historically high lumber prices mean for Florida home buyers

Blame a lack of rail cars in Canada or not enough semi trucks in the United States. Forest fires didn’t help. Tariffs played a big role, too. Even the buoyant economy takes part of the rap for frothy lumber prices, which hit all-time highs las...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Hereís the skinny on the ketogenic diet: What it is, how to follow it properly

Hereís the skinny on the ketogenic diet: What it is, how to follow it properly

It started with jugs of olive oil and cans of tuna, lots of it, which my husband hauled in one day and plunked on the counter. "Thatís my lunch!"That was about three months ago, and every day since there has been a new entity in our house to consider...
Updated: 2 hours ago
New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

ST. PETERSBURG ó Originally pitched as a nine- or 10-story, 550-bed dorm for the overcrowded University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, USFís latest residence hall project will likely look much different by the time itís done.For starters, it...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Safety Harbor is no safe haven from cyberbullying

Safety Harbor is no safe haven from cyberbullying

SAFETY HARBOR ó Mayor Joe Ayoub put forth a resolution Monday evening asking the City Commission to condemn cyberbullying.The result? The meeting devolved into shouting and whispering from the crowd and people storming out of chambers.The mayorís res...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Am I missing something in the — pardon the expression — brouhaha over the renaming of the University of South Florida Sun Dome to the Yuengling Center? In trading a college arena’s longtime name for that of a big-name beer brewed ne...
Updated: 3 hours ago