BROOKSVILLE — On Jan. 8, Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon joined three local University of Florida supporters in Gainesville to watch the school's basketball team take on Sossamon's favorite squad, the University of South Carolina Gamecocks.
The Gators won.
One of their most prominent local fans, SunTrust Bank executive Jim Kimbrough, picked up the tab for Sossamon's $20 general admission ticket.
On Tuesday, after questions were raised about the game, Sossamon told the Times that he had invited Kimbrough to his office so he could repay him for the ticket.
"In about an hour I'm going to insult Mr. Kimbrough and give him a check for $20," Sossamon said.
He also planned to tell Kimbrough that he couldn't travel out of the county with him again, but he would be free to meet with him in his office.
A dozen years ago, another county administrator — Paul McIntosh — was pushed out of his job after it was revealed that he accepted sports tickets from local business leaders and a round of golf at the exclusive Black Diamond golf course in Citrus County from Kimbrough.
While the cost of the ticket Sossamon accepted doesn't meet the $25 "minimal value" outlined in the county's gift policy, the news of the trip to Gainesville still riled up one commissioner.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he didn't care whether Sossamon repaid Kimbrough for the ticket or not. "It's a concern of mine," Nicholson said. "I would just prefer for him not to do these kinds of things."
Nicholson said that Sossamon should meet Kimbrough only in his office and that trips and long lunches send a bad message because Sossamon "is with people who are trying to influence his decisionmaking."
In the past, Nicholson has voiced concerns about Kimbrough, who is influential in local politics, meeting individually with commissioners. "Mr. Kimbrough has come to my office before and left not happy, to say the least," Nicholson said.
Nicholson said he planned to talk to Sossamon about the perception of influence and to remind him that he answers to commissioners.
"The five of us are his boss," he said.
Sossamon said he was invited to the game because he is a Gamecock fan. He said he went in an effort to mend fences between the government and business leaders. "It was all in good spirit to make amends with the business community," he said.
Also along on the trip were Cliff Manuel, president of Coastal Engineering, and local lawyer Bruce Snow, who is a past county attorney.
During the ride with Manuel and Snow, Sossamon said they talked about sports, Hernando County history and who is related to whom. Sossamon also acknowledged a discussion about barbecue, a topic near to his heart.
The three met Kimbrough in Ocala and then traveled to Gainesville for the game. They each bought themselves water, peanuts and popcorn. Sossamon also got Gator pompoms, which still sit in his office.
"Nobody bought them for me," he said, and no county business was discussed.
Other than that trip, he acknowledged only one other out-of-the-county trip with Kimbrough. The other was to Dade City, where they met with Billy Brown of the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative to talk about the utility's industrial land adjacent to the Brooksville Walmart distribution center.
That conversation happened before the County Commission gave Sossamon the additional duties of being the county's economic development director.
County Commissioner Diane Rowden, who also has been critical in the past of private meetings between Kimbrough and county commissioners, didn't see a problem with the basketball tickets, especially since Sossamon paid back the cost.
"I have full confidence and trust in Mr. Sossamon, and if he said he didn't discuss county business, I have no reason to doubt that," she said. "He didn't violate any policy by going to a basketball game."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.