Saturday, May 26, 2018
Politics

Carlton column: Anticorruption prosecutor for a Hillsborough scandal? Great idea

What will investigators looking at allegations of cozy relationships in the awarding of a fat Hillsborough County contract ultimately find? Were any actual crimes committed?

And what sort of person would have to be part of that investigation for everyone who's closely watching to trust the answers we expect any day now?

More on that mystery man in a minute in what's as close to a cliffhanger as local politics gets.

By now you know the scandal — or at least the allegations, depending on your perspective, and believe me, everyone involved in this has a perspective.

In the Go Hillsborough initiative to let voters decide on a sales tax for transportation — if county commissioners agree to put it on the November ballot — critics question whether savvy and connected public relations consultant Beth Leytham helped steer a $1.35 million contract to an engineering firm that was her client. That firm then hired her as a subcontractor for a public outreach campaign.

What an insinuation to drop into the laps of vocal antitax and anti-Go Hillsborough activists, even if it has not a whit to do with the actual need to improve roads and transit around here. Nothing distracts like the possibility of scandal.

Even when the county administrator brought in no less than Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee to investigate and determine if there was wrongdoing here, critics sniffed that the well-regarded sheriff was not independent enough, that he was too tied to the county.

So. Who might they want to see in this investigative mix?

Someone with experience as a federal anticorruption prosecutor weighing in, maybe? A former U.S. attorney, perhaps?

Done, as it turns out.

Bobby O'Neill, once the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, was brought in by the Sheriff's Office as a consultant in its investigation — a smart move in a case that involves both public trust and actual fact.

Think: former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White, who went to prison for taking a bribe. Or Audley Evans, accused of misappropriating Tampa Housing Authority funds. Or Steve and Lynne LaBrake, who went to prison in a city housing department scandal.

O'Neill prosecuted them, and he also ran a 35-county district before he left two years ago to work for a risk-management company run by former FBI director Louis Freeh.

The Sheriff's Office also brought in an independent auditor from a CPA firm on the Go Hillsborough matter.

"We had various independent reviews that took place aside from HCSO personnel," says sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.

What sounds like an exhaustive investigation — if you ask people interviewed in it — is now in the hands of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office pending its review. Barring further investigation or glitches, it could be released within a few weeks.

We'll have to see what it says about what did and did not happen regarding Go Hillsborough, if politicians blurred lines and if lobbying rules are woefully lax. (Actually, commissioners addressed that one in their recent scramble to put some bite to those rules.)

But already, investigators deserve some credit for moves that could go a long way toward shoring up public trust and moving ahead to what's next.

Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]

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