ST. PETERSBURG — The state Department of Transportation launched an investigation Thursday into how the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority spent public money to educate voters about Greenlight Pinellas.
Earlier this month, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sent a letter to FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad accusing the campaign of using about $800,000 for propaganda purposes, violating a state law that requires taxpayer money to be spent only on educational campaigns.
On Thursday, officials with FDOT's Inspector General met with Brandes to clarify his concerns, then started a review.
"Senator Brandes expressed a concern that outreach by the PSTA on the proposed transit development initiative had moved past education and into advocacy," the statement said. "The (office) has begun the process of reviewing expenditures invoiced by PSTA."
PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher said Thursday the agency welcomes the review and has provided information to help the inquiry. He said the money was spent on a variety of educational outreach efforts, including websites, graphics and consultants.
"The outreach focuses on informing the public about the plan and what it entails for the future of transportation in Pinellas County whether the funding change referendum passes or not this coming November," he said. "We are confident this DOT review will confirm this in the coming weeks."
Meanwhile, over a lunch of herb crusted chicken, the debate over Greenlight Pinellas got heated at a Suncoast Tiger Bay political club luncheon.
The speakers: County Commissioner Ken Welch, who also is chairman of the PSTA board, and Barb Haselden, leader of the No Tax for Tracks group.
Welch got up to answer a question after watching Haselden give a speedy slideshow presentation that used charts and graphs to convince the crowd that the referendum is a boondoggle that must be stopped.
"In the ranking of disinformation, there are lies, there are darned lies, and there are statistics, and I would add to that statistics in the hand of No Tax for Tracks," Welch said.
Some in the crowd began to grumble, boo and hiss.
"How dare you!" one man shouted. "You're the liar!"
A moderator rang the bell to restore order.
The referendum, which will go before voters on Nov. 4, calls for increasing the county's sales tax from 7 to 8 cents, raising roughly $130 million a year to pay for an expanded bus system and light rail from Clearwater to St. Petersburg. The sales tax would replace PSTA's current property tax.
Contrary to Haselden's claims, Welch said, bus ridership is at record levels and the county's population is increasing. Asked if the trains would increase congestion by taking up space on roads, Welch said they would not take away existing lanes.
Haselden said the "massive" sales tax increase would hurt businesses and the poor.
Haselden said Welch is wrong when he said her group opposes the concept of public transportation. Her group wants the county to improve bus service without taking on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt for light rail.
"What I'm totally against is runaway public transportation and building our whole society around public transportation," she said.
A man asked if Welch's earlier comments about No Tax were fair.
"These are also the same folks who have said no to the county on fluoride, no to the county on our affordable housing program, no to the county even on Meals on Wheels," Welch replied. "Folks need to understand a lot of bad information is being put out there, a lot of personal attacks that don't advance the conversation, and I think I have a responsibility to respond to that."
Many in the crowd applauded. Haselden said she and her members have been respectful and are trying to use statistics to make their case.
Meanwhile, campaign finance reports released Thursday show Greenlight's political action committee, "Friends of Greenlight," collected $66,350 in March. The report is the first since the private campaign formed a political action committee after drawing criticism from opponents and supporters alike for using a 501c4 designation that allowed it to shield donor identities.
The money came largely from two donors: Duke Energy ($50,000) and the Pinellas Realtor Organization ($10,000). Greenlight's finance chairman Alex Glenn is a Duke employee. Its campaign manager is Joe Farrell, director of public affairs for the Realtors group.
No Tax for Tracks has raised $25,396 since December. Of that, $16,000 came from two larger donors, Elizabeth Burgess of St. Petersburg and Richard L. Canary of Clearwater. The group just bought a 15-second television commercial, Haselden said.
"We don't need a lot of money," she said. "We just need to get out there and get the word out."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.