TAMPA — An opponent of a controversial rezoning for St. Joseph's Women's Hospital has filed an ethics complaint against Tampa City Council member Guido Maniscalco, contending he did not report a helicopter ride he got from the hospital as a gift.
Under Florida law, elected officials are required to disclose when they receive gifts valued at more than $100, except from relatives and certain other people in close relationships.
But that's not what Nancy Huerta said happened.
"On May 12, 2015, Mr. Maniscalco was provided use of the St. Joseph's Hospital's trauma helicopter for a joy ride around the city of Tampa," she said in a complaint last week. "The helicopter tour was not part of any official business. … It goes without saying that a trip in a trauma helicopter far exceeds the $100 limits placed on gifts."
Moreover, the complaint says the ride took place just before St. Joseph's filed an amended lawsuit against the city in a long-running dispute over a rezoning request to tear down an old parking garage and replace it with new parking lots. When her attorney made a public records request for Maniscalco's calendar, it says, he got a blank page in reply.
On Monday, Maniscalco acknowledged taking the ride as part of a tour of the hospital. He said it did not affect his vote on the St. Joseph's rezoning.
"That's silly to think so," he said. Asked whether he reported the ride as a gift, Maniscalco said, "I don't see how you can put a monetary value on it. It's not available for public use. It's part of the tour."
The hospital invited Maniscalco, then a new member of the council and a representative for the area, on the tour as it routinely does with local and state elected officials and community leaders, said Keri Eisenbeis, director of government relations for Baycare Health System, which includes St. Joseph's.
The goal was to give Maniscalco an understanding of how busy the hospital is and the range of services it offers. He was interested in emergency care, and the helicopter ride was a byproduct of that part of the tour, Eisenbeis said, not an attempt to sway him on the rezoning.
"It's not uncommon for this to happen," she said.
Maniscalco said he had not received anything from the state notifying him of the ethics complaint.
"When that happens, I plan to dispute the allegation and defend it," he said. He said the complaint is "clearly, directly tied" to the rezoning.
"To me, it's a type of bullying," he said.
Huerta filed her complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics the week after a City Council vote on St. Joseph's rezoning.
The rezoning case had dragged on for more than three years, with the City Council denying the application, St. Joseph's filing its lawsuit and neighbors attempting to intervene in the case.
On Feb. 11, after discussions related to a possible settlement, the council approved a site plan that included a landscaped "linear park" between the proposed new parking lot and W Lake Avenue, where neighbors who oppose the rezoning live.
The vote was 4-2, with Frank Reddick and Yvonne Yolie Capin voting no. Charlie Miranda abstained because his house on W Lake Avenue is near the proposed parking lots. While abstaining from votes on the rezoning, Miranda has addressed the council as an interested homeowner, a vocal opponent of the rezoning and a critic of the hospital's record as a neighbor. Monday night, he said he had nothing to do with the ethics complaint.