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Public works bosses knew about double-dipping, former manager says

“I never used my position to do something illegal or wrong.” Bill Busch, a former paving manager at the county public works department

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

“I never used my position to do something illegal or wrong.” Bill Busch, a former paving manager at the county public works department

SPRING HILL — Four months ago, Bill Busch became a symbol of corruption in Hernando County government.

A criminal investigation, revealed by the St. Petersburg Times in August, focused on Busch's employment with a private paving contractor while he worked part-time for the county's public works department as the pavement management coordinator.

At the time, Busch's bosses claimed ignorance of the arrangement: Charles Mixson and Gregg Sutton said they learned about the situation only after the Hernando County Sheriff's Office initiated an investigation. They called it a "complete shock and surprise."

Now, the man at the center of the investigation suggests that Mixson and Sutton misled the public about what they knew.

In his first interview since the investigation broke, Busch said this week that his bosses understood that he had taken a job with Ohio paving company KMS and Associates Inc. after he retired in January.

But he said they asked him to return as a contract employee in the division managing the county's 800-mile road network despite the obvious conflict.

"Everybody felt very comfortable with the arrangement," Busch said.

Mixson and Sutton, reached by phone last week, refused to comment.

The revelations add a new dimension to a case that rattled county government but now appears lost in the purgatory of the justice system.

At the county level, Administrator David Hamilton called the new information from Busch "interesting" but said he is trying to move forward. He felt the situation represented a blatant conflict and he suspended Mixson for two weeks when the Busch investigation came to light.

Investigators believe the criminal case is solid but the State Attorney's Office in Ocala has yet to make a decision as to whether Busch's double-dipping constitutes a crime, or just a violation of county policies.

Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson, who is handling the case, has not responded to repeated calls seeking an update.

In the meantime, Busch is trying to clear his name in the court of public opinion. He broke his silence in a wide-ranging interview requested by the Times that recently took place at the Spring Hill office of his attorney, Robert Whittel.

Busch, and his wife, Kay, described the pain endured as the investigation lingers in doubt.

"I'm really disappointed in the way it was handled," he said. "I spent eight years with the county doing the best job that I could. … I'm just very surprised it got to this point. I never … used my position to do something illegal or wrong."

Busch's attorney called his client "collateral damage" in a long-running dispute between Mixson, the county engineer, and Jim Gantt, the county's purchasing director. (Gantt refutes this assertion.)

Whittel said Mixson and Sutton's denials that they knew of Busch's arrangement were "ludicrous."

"They were basically trying to cover for themselves," he added.

Even as Busch asserts that his bosses deserve more fault, he defends his deal, suggesting no conflict existed.

"I tried to do everything that I possibly could to ensure there was no type of conflict whatsoever," he said. "However, someone else could be looking at it and say, from arm's length, it is possible."

To support his case, Busch provided the Times a previously undisclosed document approved by his bosses that delineated his new responsibilities.

He said it shows his bosses not only knew about the conflict but they attempted to compensate by giving some of his previous duties to other staff members.

The two-page memorandum, which Mixson would not verify, includes a cost-analysis showing that hiring Busch through a labor agency would save the county $62,000 a year.

But in his contract role, the document shows, Busch retained authority to recommend strategies for road repairs, suggest budget items and research new products. All decisions needed approval of his bosses, but KMS, or its affiliated companies, possibly stood to benefit.

In the interview, Busch did make one clear admission. He acknowledged receiving sales commission on KMS contracts with Hernando County while he worked for the county.

But he defended the practice by noting that the contracts were negotiated by his predecessor at KMS, Bob Siffert. He just assumed the commission when he took over as the company's Florida representative, he said.

Busch first represented KMS in a public bid in October when he sought to retain his company's contract inspecting the county's roads.

As a county employee two years earlier, he helped design the same contract he made a bid to win. When he appeared at the bid opening wearing a KMS polo, he surprised county purchasing officials.

"Doesn't that tell you that I'm really not trying to hide this stuff?" Busch said.

He took a similar stance when it came to the larger issues of his cozy relationship with county road contractors.

Busch said negotiating post-retirement employment with KMS using his county e-mail account is common practice.

"I know pavement management, and this company is pavement management, so this company would be the logical place to go," he said. "I guess if I really thought I was doing something bad, I would have waited until I got home."

Documents investigators reviewed also show Busch referred work to KMS amid his employment negotiations. He said he was merely telling private subdivisions who the county uses for its pavement program.

In this same way, records show Busch touted a largely untested product called RePLAY. The asphalt rejuvenator is distributed by the son of KMS President Joe Kindler.

Busch said he advocated for the product because he decided it was the best treatment for the county roads, although no comparison tests were completed.

The public works department's efforts to use RePLAY never came together after Pavement Technologies Inc., a distributor with a competing product, filed a protest and threatened a lawsuit.

"This case is all about sour grapes," Whittel said.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank @sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Public works bosses knew about double-dipping, former manager says 12/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2008 2:31pm]
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