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Investigation of Friends of Carrollwood Cultural Center board finds no Sunshine Law violations

CARROLLWOOD — The Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office has closed an investigation into allegations that the Friends of the Carrollwood Cultural Center violated the Sunshine Law.

After an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, "I have determined that there has not been a criminal violation of the Sunshine Law," State Attorney Mark Ober said in a letter to Hillsborough County officials this week.

County officials had asked prosecutors to look into allegations that several board members of the Friends violated Florida's open-government law last spring by discussing business outside of their official meetings. But in nearly every instance, the e-mails and other communications in question were personal or permitted by law, Ober said.

The "remaining communication of concern" was an e-mail that then-board president Jim Carver sent to board members last April 25, Ober said. In it, he discussed the future of the center and asked for the thoughts of other board members. Two replied.

"While it may have been more prudent not to respond, I have determined that this series of communications does not violate the law," Ober said. "These communications were not of the nature one would expect to be discussed at any foreseeable meeting."

The investigation arose from a simmering controversy over the cultural center's finances and leadership last year.

The center opened three years ago after the county spent $8 million renovating two churches to create it. It is run by the Friends, a private, nonprofit organization. Last year, the county paid the Friends $380,000, about half the center's budget, to manage the facility.

Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law bans local elected officials from having private discussions with each other about matters they expect to vote on at their official meetings. Violating the law is a second-degree misdemeanor.

When private boards such as the Friends take on government functions, Florida attorney general's opinions and case law say it's prudent to follow the Sunshine Law, according to Kenneth Tinkler, a Carlton Fields lawyer whose firm represents the Friends on a pro bono basis.

With the center running an operating deficit last spring, many rumors about possible layoffs or other personnel moves engulfed the facility, its staff and its supporters.

Hillsborough officials asked prosecutors to step in after receiving allegations that board members had discussed the future of center executive director Paul Berg outside of their meetings.

As the FDLE began its investigation late last summer, the Friends met to go over the allegations one by one and get clarity on what the board is required to do under Florida law. Such meetings are often known as "cure" meetings, because they are meant to correct a tainted process that took place before a governmental entity made a particular decision, such as awarding a bid or entering into a contract.

With the Friends, however, the rumored firings and drastic budget cuts never took place, so there was not the typical action to be cured through the meeting.

In his letter, Ober described the cure meeting and other measures Tinkler and the board took as "immediate and corrective steps" that sought to avoid "even the appearance of impropriety."

"I appreciate the state attorney and FDLE recognizing that the Friends jumped on this and tried to incorporate more Sunshine training into the response to what occurred," Tinkler said.

Since the controversy, Carver and a couple of other board members involved in the e-mails and discussions have left the board.

One who stayed, John Miley, said this week that the outcome was what he had expected.

"I didn't do, hadn't done, anything others hadn't done time and time again," said Miley, one of the board members who responded to Carver's e-mail asking for their thoughts. "For all intents and purposes, it's been a learning experience, and everybody's moving forward."

In addition to the criminal investigation, an open-government advocacy group, Citizens for Sunshine, last year sued the Friends over the allegations.

That suit is pending in Hillsborough Circuit Court but is in the process of being settled, Tinkler said. Part of the proposed settlement would be to add more Sunshine Law training for board members and make such training a more formal and regular process.

Meanwhile, the center itself managed to control costs and attract enough patrons to finish 2010 in the black.

"As far as I'm concerned," current Friends president Nancy Stearns said, "everything is looking very, very rosy."

Investigation of Friends of Carrollwood Cultural Center board finds no Sunshine Law violations 02/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011 3:30am]
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