ST. PETERSBURG — If Rick Baker is elected mayor, he said he will not recuse himself from any city business involving his current boss, businessman Bill Edwards.
"As mayor, it is my job to aggressively negotiate on behalf of the citizens of St. Petersburg to ensure that their best interests are well represented," Baker said in a statement issued by his campaign. "I have always done that and will continue to do so."
That question hangs over the mayoral race and has been oft asked on social media, primarily by supporters of Baker's foe, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Kriseman declined to comment for this story.
City Council member Karl Nurse, a Kriseman supporter, has called for Baker to recuse himself from any official business involving Edwards, whose commercial real estate, development and entertainment firm does business with the city.
Edwards owns the Sundial St. Pete downtown shopping plaza; the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which play at Al Lang Stadium; and has an agreement to operate the city-owned Mahaffey Theater.
That means Mayor Baker could end up negotiating with Edwards if Major League Soccer were to award an expansion team to the Rowdies, or if the Mahaffey contract needs to be amended.
Nurse said Baker should reconsider his stance.
"I think it's a clear conflict of interest," Nurse said, "and that's why recusal is the appropriate thing to do.
"You know we have lots of staff that can handle the negotiations who were not Edwards' highest-paid employee or the recipient of $50,000 in campaign money."
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Since late 2012, Baker has been the president of the Edwards Group, currently earning $186,991 while leading the effort to land an MLS expansion team. He spearheaded the Rowdies' successful May 29 referendum, where city voters blessed allowing the team to upgrade Al Lang and negotiate a long-term lease with the city if the team gets an expansion franchise.
If Baker becomes mayor, he said he'll resign his job and sever all financial ties with Edwards.
Baker told the Tampa Bay Times that voters shouldn't fear he would be beholden to Edwards.
"As mayor my loyalty and priority has always been, and will always be, making decisions based on the best interests of the people of St. Petersburg and the effort to improve the quality of life for everyone in our city," Baker said in a statement.
He compared his current job as president of the Edwards Group to his partnership at Fisher and Sauls law firm when he became mayor in 2001. That firm sues the city all the time, Baker said, and when he was elected mayor he dissolved his financial ties to the firm.
He would do the same if he returns to the mayor's office: resign his job and sever all financial ties, he has said.
"When you're somebody that's involved in the community, you're going to have relationships like that," Baker said in a July interview with the Times editorial board. "When you go into being mayor or whatever you decide to do."
Baker said his work at the Edwards Group should be viewed in the same context: "So I don't think anybody ever doubted when I was mayor that, they might not always agree with me, but they always felt I was fighting for the city of St. Pete. That it was my first and last priority."
But Edwards is also Baker's biggest individual campaign contributor, contributing at least $50,000. The businessman said he expects nothing from Baker in return for his financial support.
"He doesn't owe me anything and I don't owe him anything," Edwards said. "People shouldn't be concerned."
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There's another Edwards connection that Kriseman supporters are wary of:
Edwards' defunct mortgage-lending company, Mortgage Investors Corp., or MIC, is the subject of a federal lawsuit charging the company cheated veterans and taxpayers out of millions of dollars by charging illegal fees and then seeking to collect on federal loan guarantees when borrowers defaulted. He closed MIC in 2013.
Vince Cocks, an ardent volunteer for Kriseman, has publicly spoken out about Edwards' legal troubles. He said voters should be wary of a candidate working for someone involved in "shady" businesses.
"It's a close connection," Cocks said. "I don't think it serves the city. It's not in the best interests of the citizens."
Stetson University College of Law professor Richard Harrison is an expert on government law and a Baker supporter. He said the business relationship between Baker and Edwards doesn't present any legal conflict of interest.
"This generalized notion that there is a conflict because Baker has had a previous life doesn't really strike me as something to be concerned about," Harrison said.
He said Baker would have to adhere to state ethics codes and increased public and media scrutiny of any dealings with his former boss. There would also be checks in place: City Council would have to approve any changes to the Mahaffey contract or a Rowdies expansion of Al Lang.
"I'm sure people will be watching to make sure that everybody is following the rules," Harrison said.
But an expert on government ethics said politicians should do everything they can to avoid potential conflict of interests before they happen. Hana Callaghan, director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, could not comment on Baker's specific situation. But she said elected officials have an obligation to be proactive.
"Politicians have the duty to avoid appearance of impropriety even if they're not legally obligated to do so in order to retain the public trust," Callaghan said. "We all have conflicts, having a conflict is not a bad thing. That being said, it's what you do in the face of that conflict."