TAMPA — In letters from prison, swindler Matthew B. Cox says he arranged thousands of dollars in payoffs to then-Tampa City Council candidate Kevin White. In return, Cox says, White promised to vote his way on rezoning vacant land in Ybor City and Tampa Heights.
Cox also told the story about the payoffs to FBI agents in three days of debriefings, cooperation that was part of a plea bargain before his sentencing in November for fraud, forgery and identity theft, according to the federal public defender who represented Cox in Atlanta.
"Kevin White was the first thing the FBI wanted to talk to him about," said Mildred Dunn, who took notes during Cox's FBI interviews. "They told me they had an investigation going on down there."
Cox said he and his associates in a Tampa real estate investment company called Urban Equity solicited $500 contributions to White from subordinates, family members and friends, and then reimbursed them for the checks. The practice is a violation of Florida election law.
After funneling the illegal contributions to White, "I said, 'Now, anything we need to get rezoned, you'll vote our way, right?' " Cox recounted in one of his letters to the St. Petersburg Times. "White said, 'Absolutely! You help get me elected and I'll vote in your favor every time.' "
White made it into a runoff for the City Council in 2003. Cox said White then asked for more money, and Cox obliged with a $7,000 payoff, in cash. White triumphed in the runoff and told Cox and his partners "that without us, he couldn't have made it."
White, 43, parlayed his council success into an election in 2006 to a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission.
Told of Cox's allegations, White said he was unaware that Cox arranged illegal contributions, and he said he never accepted any cash.
"He's just lying. That's all there is to it,'' White said. "As a Navy veteran and a former police officer, I've made my life and career by serving others. Mr. Cox has made his life out of lying, cheating and stealing. So the public can determine who's lying here."
• • •
In 2002, after resigning from the Tampa Police Department and taking a job as finance director for an auto dealership, White stepped into the crowded race for the District 5 seat on the City Council.
Cox and his associates at Urban Equity, David Walker and Rudy Arnauts, were busy buying up properties in the city's quickly gentrifying areas of Tampa Heights and Ybor City.
Walker and Arnauts could not be reached for comment.
Cox said he was outside a Mediterranean-style triplex he was renovating at 403 E Amelia Ave. when he met White, who was putting up campaign signs in the neighborhood.
Cox had ambitious development plans, and he said White said he envisioned Ybor becoming "the next Hyde Park." A political alliance was formed. Cox said White told him he would need $5,000 to $15,000 to win the council seat, and Cox raised the money.
But Cox said that when he tried to hand White the cash, the candidate said he couldn't take it, advising Cox to get friends and co-workers to write checks to his campaign for $500, the legal limit on contributions per election in Florida.
That's just what Cox did. Records show that at least $8,000 was channeled into White's campaign from Cox connections, many from people who confirmed that the contributions were solicited, reimbursed and thus illegal:
• Sarah Frame, a broker who worked with Walker and Cox at United Capital Trust mortgage company, said Walker solicited a $500 check from her and another from her boyfriend, Kirk Stevens. Both were repaid.
• Turner Earnest, another United Capital Trust broker, agreed to write White a $500 check, though he knew nothing about the candidate.
• Jana Poat, a personal trainer who invested in Cox's Tampa Heights projects, said she wrote a $500 check to White's campaign at Cox's behest and was repaid.
Alison Arnold, a girlfriend of Cox's, said she was his "little tagalong" while White was running for office and witnessed Cox solicit contributions from employees, including Poat.
"Cox would give $500 cash to his business associates and ask them to write a check to White,'' Arnold said. "White was interested in redevelopment in Tampa Heights, and so were the guys at Urban Equity. They had the same interests."
Cox, Arnauts, Walker, Walker's wife and Cox's mother also wrote $500 checks to White.
Another $500 check to White came from the account of a purported real estate investor named Brandon Green. In fact, Green did not exist — he was one of the personas Cox invented to buy ramshackle homes, borrow against them with phony financial credentials and then walk away, leaving lenders puzzled about the whereabouts of the investor. In all, Brandon Green obtained $858,000 in mortgage loans.
Cox said in his prison correspondence that all the cash used as reimbursement for the campaign checks came from illegal deals like the ones involving Brandon Green.
White acknowledged meeting with the Urban Equity associates before the election, but he said he had "no earthly idea" that the contributions coming to his campaign were illegal.
Cox also arranged a series of checks to be sent to Bob Buckhorn's mayoral campaign, including one from the phantom Brandon Green.
"There was no deal with (Buckhorn)," Cox said. "We were just trying to cover all the angles."
• • •
In the March 2003 primary, newcomer White was the top vote-getter among the six candidates vying for the District 5 City Council seat. In the runoff, he faced his aunt, Bernadine White-King, a county social services worker. Now, according to Cox, White said he needed more money to buy ads for the extended campaign.
This time, Cox said, he delivered $7,000 to White in front of Cox's Amelia Avenue triplex, and White took it.
Cox said the money for the $7,000 payoff came from a fraud he and a friend pulled off in Orlando, where they used forged records and a phony identity to obtain a $50,000 mortgage.
The bogus ID Cox said he used in Orlando: Michael Kevin White.
The fraudulent mortgage was recorded in Orange County eight days before the council primary in Tampa.
Cox said the real Kevin White guaranteed that if he was elected, he could deliver the votes Urban Equity needed to rezone its vacant lots from single-family to multifamily to increase their value.
"Listen, guys," Cox recalled White saying, "the way it works is I'll get enough votes to pass your rezoning because when issues like this come up for vote, most of the members vote with the elected council member of the district. And I'll be the Ybor elected council member. If the other members don't support my votes in my district, then I don't support their votes in their district."
The word "bribe" was never used, Cox said, but the meaning of the agreement was clear.
"What he said was, by giving him that kind of money, we would have his unwavering support on anything we put before the City Council," Cox wrote in his prison correspondence. "It was very, very clear: We give you the money and you get us the votes."
White captured 53.8 percent of the vote to beat his aunt for the council seat. But Cox said White, whom he had nicknamed "Mr. Bling-Bling," never got the opportunity to vote for Urban Equity's interests on the council.
In late 2003, before Cox could file any zoning petition with the council, the Times published "Dubious Deals," an inquiry into questionable property deals involving Urban Equity. Cox fled Tampa with fiancee Rebecca Hauck and became a fugitive. An FBI investigation ensued. Urban Equity sank into bankruptcy, with dozens of fraudulent transactions revealed.
Cox cut a swath of forgery and mortgage fraud through Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee, rising to No. 1 on the U.S. Secret Service most-wanted list before his capture in Nashville in November 2006.
Prosecutors said Cox committed $8.6-million in fraud involving 77 properties in Tampa, $2.35-million in fraud involving 22 properties in Nashville, and millions more in fraud in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Facing up to 422 years in prison, Cox made a deal to tell what he knew about his accomplices. In November, he was sentenced to 26 years.
Now 38, Cox is at the Coleman Federal Correctional Institution in Sumter County, where he is working off $5.97-million in restitution with payments from the $25 per month he earns teaching a prison art class.
White, meanwhile, was elected to the County Commission two years ago in a landslide.
Last year, the Florida Elections Commission found probable cause that White committed 14 violations of state election laws in his run for the commission. Most violations stemmed from White's improper use of $6,100 in campaign money to buy tailored Italian suits and from filing false campaign reports that disguised the identity of his clothier. Facing $38,047 in fines, White settled with the elections commission for $9,500.
This year, White's former aide filed a harassment lawsuit against him, claiming she was fired for refusing his "constant sexual advances and propositions." The suit is pending.
Cox, in pleading to reduced charges and telling what he knew to the FBI, thought he might earn a reduction in his sentence. But while prosecutors said Cox was assisted in his crimes in Tampa by 16 co-conspirators, none has been charged since Cox talked.
The FBI did not return calls seeking comment.
"I told the FBI all I know about White and at the time the agents seemed very excited," Cox wrote from prison. "But then they called my lawyer and told her it wasn't enough to prosecute.
"I guess we should have videotaped it. Well, next time I bribe an elected official, I'm videoing the whole thing."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or [email protected]