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Hillsborough commissioner again denies taking payoffs

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White repeated his denial Thursday that he took payoffs from swindler Matthew B. Cox in return for promises of votes, calling Cox's allegations "the jailhouse ramblings of a reputed con man."

"Let me assure the residents of Hillsborough County as well as the city of Tampa that at no time was there any deal cut by myself and now-convicted felon Matthew Cox, nor any other contributor for that matter," White said in a statement to the St. Petersburg Times.

The Times reported on its Web site Wednesday that Cox, now serving a 26-year sentence for fraud, claimed in letters from prison that he arranged illegal contributions to White's 2003 campaign for the Tampa City Council. He said he personally handed White $7,000 to defray expenses in a runoff election.

Cox's federal public defender, Mildred Dunn, confirmed that Cox gave the same information to FBI agents in three days of interviews last year after Cox agreed to cooperate with a U.S. government investigation. Dunn said agents acknowledged their investigation in Florida was ongoing and said White "was the first thing" the FBI asked Cox about.

The Times also confirmed that Cox and his associates at a real investment firm called Urban Equity solicited $500 checks for White from friends, relatives and co-workers, then used cash to repay the donors. The practice is a violation of state election law.

White said in his statement that he has "never been contacted by the FBI or any other law enforcement agency regarding this or any other criminal matter, and if I had I would be happy to cooperate to the fullest."

Thursday, an FBI spokesman said the agency had seen the Times report but declined to comment.

"It was a very interesting story," said FBI spokesman David Couvertier. "At this time, we aren't in a position to comment."

In a series of letters to the Times from Coleman Federal Correctional Institution, Cox detailed allegations that he funneled illegal cash into White's 2003 council campaign in a deal for White's votes on rezonings that Cox and his partners intended to seek on lots bought in Ybor City and Tampa Heights.

"It was very, very clear," Cox wrote in one letter. "We give you the money and you get us the votes."

Rebecca M. Hauck, a former Las Vegas legal secretary who became Cox's accomplice during a three-year forgery and mortgage fraud binge across Georgia and the Carolinas, said she often saw White meeting with Cox behind closed doors at Urban Equity's Ybor City office.

When Hauck asked Cox about White, Cox replied, "I got him elected. It's somebody I paid to get into my pocket. We need him," said Hauck's mother, Kathy Joseph, whom Hauck told of the conversation during a prison visit.

Hauck, captured by Secret Service agents in Houston in 2005 after she and Cox split up, agreed to testify against Cox. In March, she had her sentence reduced from 70 to 42 months.

Joseph said she understood from her conversations with the Secret Service that it had "50 names of persons who might be indicted in Tampa" who had connections to Cox's crimes.

Prosecutors have previously indicated that as many as 12 to 16 people in Tampa Bay were involved in Cox's crimes.

White said in his e-mailed statement Thursday that he developed a relationship with Cox because Cox seemed committed to revitalization in Tampa Heights and "I also owned several parcels of property in the area and was also committed to its revitalization."

But White said he knew nothing about illegal money coming to him or his campaign.

"Yes, it is true that Cox gave me several checks from various sources towards my campaign, but so have many other supporters," White said. "But at no time was I aware that Cox had been reimbursing others for solicited donations on behalf of my campaign, and at no time did I ever receive any cash contributions from Cox."

Cox said in one letter that he was forced by a federal investigation to flee Tampa in December 2003 and never had the opportunity to seek a rezoning from White and the rest of the council.

Nonetheless, the report of the Cox's allegations was disturbing to those who know White, a Democrat who moved from the City Council to the County Commission after the 2006 election.

"I would not want to be in his shoes," said Tom Scott, who now holds White's former seat on the City Council. "Those are serious allegations."

Bernadine White-King, White's aunt and the candidate White defeated in the 2003 council race, pointed to a finding by the Florida Elections Commission that White filed false campaign reports and misappropriated $6,100 in campaign funds to buy Italian suits during his commission campaign.

"The most recent allegations about Kevin, if true, suggest a pattern of unethical and illegal actions over the years," White-King said. "Sometimes it takes time for the truth to surface. But it usually does."

Times staff writers Janet Zink and Bill Varian contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough commissioner again denies taking payoffs 08/07/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 10, 2008 12:28pm]

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