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Heading Hillsborough transportation agency proved lucrative for Kevin White's campaigns

Kevin White hauled in  $30,000 in contributions connected to companies  the PTC regulated.

Kevin White hauled in $30,000 in contributions connected to companies the PTC regulated.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners jostle every year for assignments on boards that do everything from oversee Raymond James Stadium to promote tourism.

For his four years on the commission, and three years before that on the Tampa City Council, Kevin White angled to serve on the board that regulates taxis, limousines and other cars for hire.

It's a choice that paid off handsomely in cash contributions lavished on his campaigns by companies he helped regulate. But it's his actions at the agency that now have him facing bribery charges.

The first time White ran for office in 2003, before he was on that board, he collected just three contributions from transportation businesses. They totaled $1,000.

During his two elections since, he pulled in at least $30,000 from cab companies, ambulance lobbyists, wrecker services, people who own those businesses and their affiliates. And those are just the contributions from people who identify their occupations clearly and other well- known players in the industry.

White, a Democrat, was not alone in attracting generous donations from the transportation industry while serving on the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. Almost everyone who serves on the seven-member board — which includes elected officials from the county and its three cities — has enjoyed support during recent elections.

And it's all perfectly legal.

"It's a way to have a base of support," said state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, who served on the PTC while a Hillsborough County commissioner and has proposed abolishing it. "I suspect the entities regulated by PTC raise a lot of money for people."

They do. Businesses regulated by the PTC have emerged as one of the largest blocs of campaign contributors after the construction and development industry.

Federal authorities, however, say White stepped well beyond the line in 2010. In a 10-count federal indictment, they accuse him and his late father of accepting bribes totaling $8,000 from men representing themselves as tow-truck operators seeking favorable treatment from the PTC.

One of them, Tampa City Towing owner George Hondrellis, has been charged with White and denies wrongdoing. The other two were working with the FBI, one as an informer, the other as an undercover agent.

White did not return a phone call Thursday and his attorney, Grady Irvin, declined comment.

The PTC has been the source of ongoing controversy through the years, accused of showing bias in its treatment of businesses it regulates. Often the accusers point to political donations heaped on commissioners by dominant cab, limo and ambulance companies.

County Commissioner Ken Hagan received at least $20,000 in donations from the regulated transportation industry during his last two campaigns while serving on the PTC. Rose Ferlita, a former member of the board, collected at least $13,000 between her run for County Commission four years ago and her recent bid to be Tampa mayor.

Neither returned calls.

Les Miller, who succeeded White on the County Commission and took a seat on the PTC, collected at least $4,500 from transport companies. They came within three days of him knocking White off in the primary.

Lou Minardi, owner of several transportation companies in Hillsborough County including Yellow Cab, is a campaign donation regular. He said he gives to campaigns generally and doesn't always win the day on votes.

"Almost every industry donates to political people," Minardi said. "It doesn't guarantee you're going to get anything, that's for damn sure. It never has me."

No commissioner received the level of campaign support as White. Nearly one in 10 dollars he collected in his past two elections came from the transportation industry.

No other PTC member enmeshed himself in the agency's affairs, either. As chairman, he led the charge to fire executive director Greg Cox. Then he pressed to replace him with Cesar Padilla, who did not meet the minimum education qualifications.

In 2007, White urged the PTC board to hire a lobbyist. Two weeks later, his former campaign manager, Victor DiMaio, landed in the job making $60,000 a year. White said he was not involved.

As Tampa made plans to play host to the 2009 Super Bowl, White started an executive security company offering limousine service. His business was in the same building as the PTC, in space now rented by a cab company whose owner lent White money for a house after he left office.

Authorities say White and his father accepted bribes from Hondrellis and the informer in a series of 2010 payments. The Whites told the men the commissioner could help land towing certificates and a spot on lists law agencies use when a wrecker is needed.

The indictment says he told the undercover agent in a May 28, 2010, phone conversation he could do the same for him.

White "discussed his campaign with the undercover federal agent and advised the undercover federal agent that he needed $10,000," the indictment reads.

On June 4, 2010, the indictment says the agent delivered White $5,000 at a steak house.

His campaign reports list one donation on that date: $250 from a Tampa security firm.

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.

Heading Hillsborough transportation agency proved lucrative for Kevin White's campaigns 06/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 3:45pm]
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