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Family asks that Ralph Hughes' name be removed from Hillsborough County Moral Courage Award

TAMPA — The family of former political activist Ralph Hughes has asked that his name be removed from Hillsborough County's Moral Courage Award, saying he would not have wanted it to be a source of controversy.

The request came the day before Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita had planned to ask for the same action, in light of claims that Hughes owed millions in unpaid taxes when he died in 2008.

"My father would have been honored yet humbled to have his name associated with the Moral Courage Award," said Hughes' son Shea Hughes, in an e-mail Tuesday to Commissioner Jim Norman. "At the same time, he would not have wanted that association if it caused any dissension, controversy or embarrassment to his family.

"In our view, instead of the honor and respect intended, naming the award after him has resulted in people who neither knew my father well nor had any idea of what he did for his community disparaging his name and making statements that are untrue and hurtful."

Hughes, a Republican who was 77 when he died in June 2008, had been a longtime advocate of smaller government, and financially backed political candidates who shared his views. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on conservative political causes and campaigns.

Critics considered him a controlling influence over politicians he supported. He advocated a pro-growth agenda that they said benefited his concrete casting business, Cast-Crete Corp. of Seffner.

Some of those same people strongly protested when commissioners voted 5-2 in September to rename what many consider the county's most prestigious citizen award after Hughes. Eileen Hart of Lutz, a 1996 recipient, subsequently returned the one she received.

The award recognizes people who stand up to government for the community good. Commissioners created the honor in 1991 without a name attached to it.

Norman, who suggested the renaming, argued that his friend and political benefactor embodied the spirit of the award.

Then in May, the Internal Revenue Service filed a claim saying Hughes and his business owed $69.3 million in unpaid taxes and interest when he died, which the family disputes.

Ferlita, who along with Commissioner Mark Sharpe voted against renaming the award for Hughes, said she intends to broach the issue anyway when the board meets today. She said she will accept the family's request but said she also wants to prevent commissioners from renaming awards in the future in light of the IRS allegation against Hughes.

She said she is not making any commentary on the validity of the tax claim.

"I just think we need to respect the way an award was named," Ferlita said. "I just think it diminishes the value of the award to the people who received it and to the people who created it."

Nor, Ferlita said, is she against naming awards for people. In fact, she will seek to create a new award today named after Phyllis Busansky, the Hillsborough elections supervisor who died last month.

The award would recognize people who demonstrate high ethics and bring others together for the betterment of the community.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Family asks that Ralph Hughes' name be removed from Hillsborough County Moral Courage Award 07/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 12:47am]

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