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Indictment: Former Hillsborough commissioner Kevin White took bribes so towing permit would 'sail through'

Former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White was defeated in November’s primary.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times (2009)

Former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White was defeated in November’s primary.

TAMPA

The men first met with Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White and his father in January 2010.

They had $1,000 in cash and a desire to win a tow-truck permit and a spot on the list law enforcement uses when it needs a vehicle hauled away. White, who was chairman of the agency that regulates wreckers, said their application should "sail through."

The conversation is one of more than two dozen in which authorities say the Whites shook $8,000 in bribes and a 2003 Lincoln Navigator from three men who sought the commissioner's favor.

Unbeknownst to the Whites, two of those men were working for the federal government, one as an informer, the other as an undercover agent. Their conversations were captured on video and audiotape, said U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill.

White, a former Tampa police officer, Tampa City Council member and Hillsborough County commissioner, was arrested by FBI agents Wednesday at his new home in Riverview.

In an indictment handed up by a federal grand jury a day earlier, he faces 10 federal felony counts.

They include bribery, conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and lying to an FBI agent.

Each carries a maximum sentence ranging from five years to 20 years in prison, with the longest possible sentences for the fraud charges. Those counts involve using the mail or other communications to deprive citizens of the "honest services'' they should expect of pubic officials.

It was the first arrest of an elected Hillsborough County official on public corruption charges in more than a decade, harkening to the dark days of county government when three commissioners were convicted of selling votes in the mid 1980s.

Public corruption "should always be a priority of the Justice Department," said O'Neill, who took over as U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida in October, when asked if this marked a turn toward more aggressive investigations by his office. "It always has been."

O'Neill said his office is not investigating any other members of the Public Transportation Commission, which regulates cars for hire. He said this investigation is closed.

White, 46, a Democrat, stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas B. McCoun III in a rumpled blue shirt, gray slacks and ankle shackles Wednesday. McCoun explained the charges and asked if White understood.

"Yes, sir," White said.

White's mother and his wife, Jennie, entered the courthouse but did not appear during the hearing.

At the recommendation of O'Neill, who personally handled the hearing, White was permitted to post a bond of $25,000, which he did, and was later released. He didn't have to come up with that amount in cash or collateral but could have assets seized if he violates conditions of his release.

He also was ordered to turn his multiple firearms over to a friend or relative while the case proceeds, to relinquish his passport and not to leave Central Florida without permission.

White did not return a phone call Wednesday evening, and his two attorneys, Grady Irvin and Ronald Cacciatore, declined to comment.

Charged with White is George Hondrellis, owner of Tampa City Towing, who an indictment says initiated discussions with the commissioner's father. He faces the same charges, except lying to an FBI agent.

Hondrellis was forced to post a $50,000 bond because he has a lengthy criminal record, 25 arrests dating to 1983. Charges have included grand theft of cars; aggravated assault with a shotgun; drug possession and burglary.

He made news in 1996 when he was arrested on charges he towed legally parked cars from city streets and private property, then charged car owners $100 to $300 for their return.

Authorities arrested Hondrellis after luring him with a fake towing request to a Family Dollar store near his business, said his son, Nathan Hondrellis.

"They got the wrong person," George Hondrellis said after the hearing. "I'm just a private company, minding my own business."

White's father, Gerald White, died last month.

• • •

White served four years on the County Commission ending in November, and three years on the City Council before that. He was trounced in the Democratic primary last year after a federal civil jury found he discriminated against a former aide by firing her for refusing his sexual advances.

In both elected roles, he sought and was appointed to serve as a representative of each board on the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. The agency regulates cars for hire, including cabs, limousines, vans, basic light-support ambulances and tow truck operators. White was its chairman from 2006 until his election defeat.

Almost immediately after his 2009 harassment trial, which White has said left him broke, the indictment says he and his father began a series of meetings that would improve their finances.

Several took place at pricey Ruth's Chris Steak House.

According to the indictment, Hondrellis and the informer had discussed setting up a towing company together. They wanted a spot on a rotational towing list to do work with the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, a potentially lucrative pipeline of business. They needed a permit from the PTC to get on the list.

Their conversations began, the informer said, when Hondrellis told him "the PTC was giving away towing certificates for money."

The informer said Hondrellis told him he could set up a meeting with White and his father to make it happen.

In November 2009, Hondrellis told the informer he had given the elder White what authorities say was the first of several payments, a $2,000 "loan," which wouldn't be repaid.

The indictment describes meetings between the informer and White's father in which the informer gave him various sums of money.

It says Gerald White got a 2003 Lincoln Navigator after promising his son could secure them a spot on the rotating law enforcement list once they got their permit. On another occasion he solicited what he referred to as "dinner money" for his son.

White, the commissioner, met with both the first time in January 2010, with White assuring them that their permit request from the PTC would "fly through," the indictment shows.

In March 2010, the informer told Gerald White he would be submitting a permit request to the PTC with the name Tri-County Auto Towing Inc., but that it would be registered in someone else's name. The next month, he introduced Kevin White to a business associate named "Darryl," who is actually an undercover agent.

The permit was approved May 12, 2010. The indictment says White later placed two calls to the Sheriff's Office in June in an attempt to get Tri-County on its list of authorized wrecker companies.

Debbie Carter, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, said neither Tri-County nor another company named in the indictment has been added to the list.

Michael Stephen Baker, listed in state corporate records as president of Tri-County, said he knows nothing of the allegations.

That June, the indictment says, Kevin White met with the undercover agent.

In May 2010, the permit request did "fly through," though PTC officials say White played no role in what is largely a routine approval process that involves criminal background checks and a review of financial records.

After the first permit was approved, "Darryl" and White discussed getting a second company on the rotation list, the indictment says.

White mentioned his election campaign, saying he needed $10,000 and vowed to walk "Darryl's" application "straight through," according to the indictment.

The agent later paid him $5,000 over lunch at a Longhorn Steakhouse, the indictment says, which White denied when interviewed by two FBI agents at his house this March.

• • •

White's sexual harassment trial had appeared to cap a political career marred by continuing controversy.

Early on, he was forced to admit to lying when he reported the purchase of Italian suits with campaign money from his City Council campaign as consulting fees.

A convicted mortgage swindler claimed he funneled thousands in illegal campaign contributions to White.

White faced accusations of interfering in a traffic stop of a "god daughter" and openly acknowledged carrying guns into County Center, which is prohibited for others.

A federal jury awarded his former aide, Alyssa Ogden, $75,000 in damages as a result of her discrimination lawsuit.

The county remains locked in a legal battle over who should pay the costs.

Though crying broke and losing his main source of income after his election defeat, White has since purchased the home in Riverview, getting a loan from the owner of another company regulated by the PTC.

"I was hoping that we had turned the page on this saga," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who served with White on the PTC, "and unfortunately it continues."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Sue Carlton, Kim Wilmath, Shelley Rossetter, Tia Mitchell and Drew Harwell contributed to this report.

THE ACCUSATIONS

In his role as chairman of the Public Transportation Commission, the federal indictment charges, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White accepted bribes in exchange for influence in getting tow truck permits approved.

WHAT'S NEXT

After his arrest, White posted $25,000 bond and was released. He surrendered his passport and may not leave Central Florida without permission. He is expected back in court in two weeks for arraignment on the 10 felony counts.

Indictment: Former Hillsborough commissioner Kevin White took bribes so towing permit would 'sail through' 06/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2011 2:00pm]

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