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Ethics probe in Go Hillsborough complaint still open after a year

TAMPA — More than a year after the Florida Commission on Ethics agreed to investigate several complaints filed against three local elected officials, the cases remain unresolved.

Several citizens accused Hillsborough County commissioners Sandy Murman and Ken Hagan and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn of steering a $1.3 million Go Hillsborough contract to the client of a politically connected public relations consultant.

The ethics commission took up the complaints but is so far mum on its findings, if there are any, leaving Murman, Hagan and Buckhorn in limbo. And it's not entirely clear what the prolonged inquiry by the state's top guardians of public trust means for their cases.

Buckhorn said he doesn't know what schedule they are working on but isn't concerned about it. He has spoken about the matter with City Attorney Julia Mandell.

"My sense is that they are giving it the attention it deserves, which is nothing," Buckhorn said. "I think if they're frivolous, they just kind of sit in abeyance. They're not looked at. They're not pursued. At least, that's what Julia has told me."

The ethics commission has not interviewed him, Buckhorn said. Similarly, Hagan said he has "not heard one word" from the ethics commission in 13 months and has asked the county attorney's office to inquire as to what's taking so long.

Murman said she believes the state ethics commission typically waits to take action while elected officials are in the middle of a race to avoid influencing the result. Murman ran for re-election in 2016, but Hagan and Buckhorn were not on the ballot.

Commission spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman said such a rule does not exist and "there is never a blanket we're not going to investigate because it's election season.

"It's kind of perpetually election season," she said.

The state ethics commission does not discuss cases — or even publicly acknowledge ongoing investigations — until a resolution is reached. Stillman could only say that delays can occur "for a variety of reasons" in a department that completed more than 90 investigations last year with seven investigators. She could not provide statistics on how long an investigation typically takes.

The commission next meets on Friday (Jan. 27).

For the citizens who submitted the complaints, there is a belief that a protracted investigation could signal validity to the charges.

One of those citizens, George Niemann of Dover, has filed at least 10 ethics complaints against Hillsborough and Tampa officials over the last decade. He said he has never seen it take so long to reach a conclusion.

He recently contacted the ethics commission and was told the cases were still under investigation.

"That is bizarre," Niemann said. "If there was nothing chargeable I think they would have dropped it a long time ago."

The complaints stem from a $1.3 million contract awarded to Parsons Brinckerhoff in 2014 to conduct public outreach for Go Hillsborough, the county's transportation funding initiative.

Parsons Brinckerhoff was chosen from a list of vetted contractors who already do business with the county, which state law allows. But critics said it was given to the firm because it was a client of Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham.

Leytham has provided political advice to Buckhorn, Murman and Hagan throughout the years.

In an August 2014 text message to Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill before Parsons Brinckerhoff was awarded the contract, Leytham said she had communicated with Murman and Hagan about "transpo and communications." She did not mention Parsons Brinckerhoff, but laid out a strategy for settling on a firm that ultimately tracked closely with the strategy followed by the county.

After it was awarded the contract, Parsons Brinckerhoff hired Leytham as a subcontractor on Go Hillsborough for $187,000.

A monthslong investigation conducted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and reviewed by the state attorney's office cleared commissioners and county officials in March of any criminal wrongdoing related to the contract.

The state attorney's office, however, concluded that Murman illegally deleted work-related text messages and ordered her to undergo public records training.

During the state's investigation, Murman has pushed a number of reforms to lobbying protocols and record keeping. Recently, she has urged the county commission to bar texting with lobbyists during meetings.

In another sign that the case has progressed slowly, outside attorneys hired by the county to represent Murman and Hagan and by the city to represent Buckhorn have not billed for any work in more than eight months.

State law requires governments to reimburse elected officials for outside legal counsel in ethics complaints. Since December 2015, Hillsborough has paid Mark Herron $1,230 to represent Murman and Mark Levine $7,912 to represent Hagan, sums that have not changed since April.

The city hired the Tallahassee law firm of Meyer, Brooks, Demma and Blohm in December 2015 to represent Buckhorn. The firm charged a flat fee of $5,000 but has not charged the city for any additional expenses since then.

"It's frustrating," Hagan said. "We've provided the Sheriff's Office report and state attorney's findings and once anybody reviews that this will be quickly dismissed."

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno

Ethics probe in Go Hillsborough complaint still open after a year 12/21/16 [Last modified: Friday, January 20, 2017 5:43pm]
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