Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Chairman William 'Hoe' Brown resigns from Tampa Port Authority board

TAMPA — William A. "Hoe" Brown resigned Friday from all of his public positions — including the chairmanship of the Tampa Port Authority — after he was outed this week for renting illegal and squalid properties to the poor and disadvantaged.

"I am keenly aware of my lapse in judgment," Brown wrote in his resignation letter to Gov. Rick Scott, "and I feel strongly that I must focus on taking full responsibility, and making amends to the best of my ability.

"Simply said, this is the right thing to do."

Brown's woes started Monday when the Tampa Bay Times inquired about five mobile homes crammed behind the house that doubles as his office at 106 W Stanley St. on the northern edge of Seminole Heights.

Code enforcement officials descended on the property and said low-income tenants were living in filthy, roach-ridden rooms "not fit for human habitation." Brown apologized Tuesday, had the units hauled away and paid $1,500 apiece to the former residents to relocate them.

But problems continued to emerge with Brown's properties at the corner of W Stanley Street and N Florida Avenue, where he also rents out a cramped motel. Police records revealed the corner was beset by crime, chaos and poverty. Officers were dispatched there regularly.

Four tenants have died on those properties in the past eight years, records show. Two overdosed, one was found decomposed two weeks after a natural death and the fourth was fatally stabbed by a man who claimed self-defense.

Then on Thursday, city officials said Brown never got permission to build or rent five apartments inside the house. He's not even permitted to keep his office there — but his company has used the address since 1995. Officials also have no idea how the illegal mobile homes there were getting water service.

All this took place behind the office of a man who cited his extensive real estate experience when he applied to help oversee the $15 billion economic engine that is the Port of Tampa.

Brown promised to bring the office and apartments inside the 1,600-square-foot house at 106 W Stanley St. up to code. His motel is already up to code, the city said.

But by Friday, the damage to his political and public career had been done. Brown also resigned from the boards of Visit Tampa Bay, the official tourism agency of Hillsborough County, and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which promotes amateur athletics. He also resigned as a Republican state committeeman for Hillsborough County, an elected party position he won last year.

"After much thought about recent events associated with my business as well as in consideration of my wife who I love dearly and this community," Brown wrote, "I have decided to resign from my appointed and publicly-held positions . . ."

Brown, 57, is a well-known GOP fundraiser who has collected money for Republican candidates great and small, from presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to numerous local office seekers.

He was first appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist to the board that oversees the port in 2008. Scott reappointed Brown in 2011 and last year the board unanimously elected him chairman.

"We appreciate Mr. Brown's service to the state of Florida and for his work on the Tampa Port Authority Board of Governors," Scott said in a statement Friday. "We continue to wish the very best for him and his family."

The Tampa Port Authority released an unsigned statement saying it was "saddened" by Brown's departure. The port also announced that the board's vice chairman, Stephen Swindal, would take over as chairman.

State Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon, the chairman of the Hillsborough Republican Party, was one of many local figures that consulted with Brown during his travails this week. He said the party accepted Brown's resignation as state committeeman with "great regret."

"I think you reach a point in these kinds of crisis-management situations," Lee said, "where you can no longer be effective as a leader."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn expressed mixed feelings on Friday. On the one hand, Brown rented out his illegal, decrepit mobile homes in the mayor's own city. But on the other hand, Buckhorn called Brown a friend who he said served the port and community well.

"I think he did the right thing," Buckhorn said. "I think he recognized the magnitude of the mistake and I think he is now going to spend a lot of time fixing the problem and hopefully spend the duration of his career finding other ways to serve."

But what happened to Brown, the mayor said, should serve as a cautionary tale.

"The lesson for anybody is just do the right thing," Buckhorn said. "In the long run, taking short cuts and skirting the rules and regulations — whether or not you're a public official — sooner or later you'll get caught.

"And in this case, it caught him in a very big way."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Will Hobson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.

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