March column: 'Corruption' at Tampa International? Here's Tom Lee's side


Is there corruption involved in the $2.6 billion expansion of Tampa International Airport, the biggest renovation ever at the airport that's considered a jewel, a source of pride for the city?

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, started a fuss Wednesday by asking on the Senate floor for an audit of the Tampa International Airport expansion, using the words, "potential public corruption at our airport."

But Lee says it's routine and customary for legislators to ask for the state Auditor General's Office to examine state agencies. The Legislature created the county Aviation Authority, which runs the airport.

He said he doesn't have "a settled opinion" about whether there are serious problems, and was shocked by the Senate floor fight that followed his request.

Lee said he developed concerns after seeing news stories on construction delays in the massive expansion project and increases in the rental car fees being used to pay for it, then looking at financial documents on the bonds.

He said he found information indicating growth at the airport seemed "flat" and that public statements by airport CEO Joe Lopano "didn't seem to match up with the financials."

Lee said officials with the state Department of Transportation, which is administering a $195 million state grant for the project, "were clearly unaware of what was going on, whether it was good, bad or indifferent. They told me, 'The airport sends us the bills for the money they've spent and we reimburse them.' "

As a Hillsborough senator, "I have a fiduciary obligation as a member of the Senate to make sure state money is spent wisely," he said.

Lee's motion for an audit died after opposition from state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who asked Lee to explain in detail his concerns, suggesting that unless he could present evidence, he was unjustifiably damaging the reputation of the airport.

Lee said he hadn't prepared to give a detailed presentation on what he considered a routine motion.

His motion, he said, "was not pejorative in any way. I was shocked at the indignation" in response. "I don't know what people have to hide. It's $1 billion of taxpayer money and it's the first $1 billion of a $2.6 billion expansion. If I don't ask for somebody to take a look at this, I could be held accountable."

Lee's motion died on a voice vote, which Senate President Joe Negron called a defeat — a description Lee disputes.

"There was at least enough question for the chair to be in doubt" and hold a formal vote, he said.

Lee attributed the event in part to political friction between himself and Latvala, which goes back to Latvala's race for the Senate presidency against Negron.

Airport spokeswoman Janet Zink said the airport is in fact experiencing strong passenger growth and expects a record number of them this year, even though the number of takeoffs and landings is flat because of bigger, fuller planes.

Zink said fees the airport charges per rental car have been raised from $2 to $5.95, but that "is very much on par" with other airports, where they're generally used for the same purpose.

She said the airport is the only one in North America with a double-A rating from its four bond rating agencies, and added, "We don't object in any way to an audit."

District 62 candidate field forming

Nineteen months before the election, there's a candidate field forming for the state House District 62 seat representing West Tampa and Town 'n' Country.

The replacement for term-limited state Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, may be decided in the Democratic primary. The district, where Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump 65-35 percent, "is non-competitive for a Republican," said political consultant Barry Edwards.

John Rodriguez, a former chief legislative aide for Cruz and her predecessors Mike Scionti and Bob Henriquez, and a long-time local Democratic campaign volunteer, said he intends to run.

Rodriguez now works in the office of Henriquez, now the property appraiser.

Already filed for the seat is Carlos Frontela of Town 'n' Country, who briefly ran but withdrew from the race for Hillsborough school board last year in his first try for public office.

Frontela, who runs a document preparation service, could be at a disadvantage. He was a Republican until recently, and the local GOP promoted his school board campaign.

Frontela said he switched parties because of disaffection with President Trump.

County Republican Party Chairwoman Deborah Tamargo said she's in the process of candidate recruiting for next year's election, but doesn't know of any Republican who's interested.

Tamargo was the last Republican to hold the seat. She won it in a 1997 special election but was unseated by Henriquez the next year.