ST. PETERSBURG — It's no secret that federal agents have been looking into St. Petersburg's sewage crisis since at least 2016, when the issue boiled over into the congressional campaign between Charlie Crist and David Jolly.
Then-congressman Jolly and Sen. Marco Rubio both called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last fall to probe the causes behind the city's discharging 200 million gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay, Boca Ciega Bay and city streets since August 2015.
Politicians got involved after Craven Askew, the chief operator of the city's Northeast wastewater treatment plant, blew the whistle on a buried 2014 study that showed sewage problems could occur if the city shut down the waterfront Albert Whitted plant, which it did in April 2015.
Askew later challenged Mayor Rick Kriseman's contention that a 58 million-gallon spill at the city's Northwest sewer plant was fully treated waste, which posed no threat to residents. Kriseman later admitted he had been wrong and the city amended its report to the state, reclassifying the spill as partially-treated sewage.
Soon after, word of EPA investigators interviewing Water Resources Department officials were confirmed by city officials.
But, last week, the gravity of the investigation appeared to reach a new level: the U.S Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida in Tampa.
The involvement of federal prosecutors likely signals a criminal investigation. The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is also conducting a criminal inquiry.
When asked by the Tampa Bay Times for an update on the federal investigation, EPA officials referred all questions to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
William Daniels, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, declined to comment on the case.
"As a matter of policy, we neither confirm or deny investigations unless, or until, an individual or entity has been officially charged by our office. To date, that has not occurred," Daniels wrote in an email last week.
But signs have emerged. Christopher Hunter, listed online as a senior trial attorney in the fraud section of the office's criminal division, earlier this month requested a copy of a state consent decree that is being finalized with the city.
The consent decree threatens daily fines if the city doesn't improve its sewage system and either pay a $810,000 fine or make equivalent upgrades in its environmental capabilities.
City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch declined to comment on the U.S. Attorney's Office's involvement. So did Doug Manson, a Tampa environmental attorney that the city has hired to negotiate the final consent decree and represent the city in sewage-related matters.