TAMPA — William A. "Hoe" Brown, chairman of the Tampa Port Authority and a prominent Republican fundraiser, has been running an illegal rental property that Tampa's code enforcement director calls "deplorable" and "not fit for human habitation."
"It's shocking. People shouldn't have to live like that," said Jake Slater, Tampa's director of neighborhood empowerment, who termed the squalor among the worst he's ever seen.
Slater visited the Seminole Heights property Monday, and his staff returned Tuesday to tell tenants their apartments — in five split, singlewide mobile homes Brown illegally placed last year behind his office at 106 W Stanley St. — were unfit for habitation.
Code staff offered to connect the tenants with social service agencies. But Brown decided to reimburse the seven tenants — who range in age from 4 to the upper 60s — hundreds of dollars in back rent in exchange for accepting short-notice evictions.
Brown declined interview requests this week, instead releasing statements through spokeswoman Beth Leytham. He accepted blame for the property's condition and apologized, but said he'd only become aware of problems in May.
Code enforcement notified Brown the mobile homes violated zoning rules in late April, Slater said. Brown disputed assertions by tenants that he had refused to deal with a roach infestation.
"He is trying to make things right," Leytham said. "He has been up since 6 a.m. He is refunding their rent. We're not just throwing them out. We are driving them to motels. We are driving them to friends. We are doing everything we can to make it right, and to help those in transition."
A bizarre scene unfolded Tuesday in the neighborhood, the day after a Tampa Bay Times inquiry prompted Slater's visit. Brown, 55, who has led local fundraising efforts for GOP candidates including presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, sat at a table inside his business office with a stack of $100 bills, tenants said, peeling off $1,500 each as compensation for nearly three months' rent.
Outside, tenants who had not yet been paid — many of them with criminal records — threatened to fight each other while Brown's employees towed away the mobile homes. All five homes were removed Tuesday, Leytham said. By removing them, Brown brought the property into zoning compliance, officials said, and thus will probably not be fined.
Leytham said all the tenants refused Brown's offers to connect them with social services.
Tenant after tenant told the same story Tuesday morning: Lured to the property by signs advertising furnished apartments for $550 a month to people on public assistance, only to find subdivided mobile homes, infested with bugs.
Through a trust, Brown owns three parcels at the corner of N Florida Avenue and W Stanley Street, including a small motel. Collectively, the properties have long been a problem, neighbors say, regularly bringing visits from law enforcement.
"That's actually why we're selling," said Joyce Harris, 50, who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years. Her home is next to Brown's office. When she saw the mobile homes pulled onto the property last year, she asked her husband how that could be legal.
It isn't, said Thom Snelling, city director of planning and development. In Tampa, only mobile home parks are zoned for mobile homes.
Brown said, through Leytham, he thought the homes were legal until a zoning change in May.
"That's the craziest thing I've ever heard," he said. The mobile homes could also violate city building rules, Snelling said.
"I don't know, because he never came in to get anything permitted," Snelling said.
As chairman of Port Authority's governing board, an unpaid position, Brown helps oversee a $15.1 billion economic engine that supports more than 80,000 jobs. Last year he helped select the Port of Tampa's new CEO, one of the most important economic development jobs in Tampa Bay.
As chairman, Brown runs the board's monthly meetings, reviews port finances, questions staff about port business and votes on deals involving millions of public dollars.
While holding a position that requires attention to detail, Brown says he was unaware of the living conditions just feet behind his own business office.
When a Times reporter visited Saturday, the stench in 67-year-old Victor Gonzalez's apartment — a mix of human and insect waste — was overpowering. Gonzalez had open wounds on his forehead — a result, he said, of scratching at bugs — and said he did not notice the smell.
"It's all right," he said of his roughly 200-square-foot apartment. "Where else could I go?"
Monday, a friend said she was taking him to St. Joseph's Hospital. But no one by that name was there Tuesday, a hospital spokeswoman said.
The building at 106 W Stanley is home to the only business Brown listed on his application to the port authority: J.B. Carrie Properties Inc. Brown has been president and owner since 1987.
The financial disclosure form he filed with the state last year offers scant information about his finances: No dollar amounts quantify his rental income or investments from a family partnership. He listed ownership of 15 commercial and residential properties, in the Tampa, Orlando and Gainesville areas. He and his wife, Chris, live in a two-story, 2,600-square-foot brown brick home in South Tampa that records show was purchased in 2003 for $485,000.
In 2008, Brown was appointed to the Tampa Port Authority board by former Gov. Charlie Crist. In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott re-appointed him. Brown serves on the boards of Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough's tourism agency, and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. In 2012, he was unanimously selected chairman of the Port Authority and was elected Hillsborough County's Republican Party state committeeman.
His tenants are familiar with the campaign signs — several have been used to cover smashed windows on the property.
As men towed mobile homes away Tuesday, Michael Gabriel came running up, screaming for them to stop. They didn't. Gabriel, 46, moved there in November. On May 1, he said, a neighbor broke into his apartment. Gabriel jolted him with a "home-made Taser" — a cane with a live, stripped wire wrapped around it.
"I'm a felon, so I can't have a firearm," explained Gabriel. "I'm an electrician by trade."
Gabriel was then arrested on charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and possession of a controlled substance (oxycodone and methamphetamine), according to records. He was jailed until June 15. When he was released, he said, Brown told him he owed $1,600 in rent.
Gabriel called Brown several names Tuesday morning outside the property until Leytham summoned him into the office. When Gabriel came back, he held a wad of 15 $100 bills.
"I like her," Gabriel said of Brown's spokeswoman. "She's fair. Bill, I think is a snake. … What a surreal day."
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect that William A. "Hoe" Brown, 55, left the Trinity Cafe's board of directors in December. Brown is 55 years old. Earlier versions were incorrect about Brown's status on the cafe's board and gave an incorrect age.