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No charges or finding of improper influence in sheriff's investigation of $1.35 million Go Hillsborough contract

Traffic on northbound Interstate 275 through downtown Tampa slows to a crawl in January during construction. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday released a report that found no criminal wrongdoing in the awarding of a $1.35 million contract for the Go Hillsborough transportation initiative. Now the Hillsborough County Commission to finally decide whether to put the Go Hillsborough referendum on this November's ballot. The referendum would seek voter approval of a half-cent sales tax hike that would fund an estimated $117 million a year for transportation projects. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]

Traffic on northbound Interstate 275 through downtown Tampa slows to a crawl in January during construction. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday released a report that found no criminal wrongdoing in the awarding of a $1.35 million contract for the Go Hillsborough transportation initiative. Now the Hillsborough County Commission to finally decide whether to put the Go Hillsborough referendum on this November's ballot. The referendum would seek voter approval of a half-cent sales tax hike that would fund an estimated $117 million a year for transportation projects. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]

TAMPA — A six-month investigation into a $1.35 million consulting contract for the Go Hillsborough transportation initiative has found no criminal wrongdoing or intentional rule-breaking by county officials.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman was singled out for improperly disposing of text messages that were public records, but Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober said she didn't do it knowingly.

"There is no evidence of official misconduct or improper influence in the procurement and selection process of Parsons Brinckerhoff," the county's contractor on the Go Hillsborough initiative, Ober wrote in a 12-page summary of the investigation.

Nor, Ober said, did the investigation reveal violations of lobbying laws or Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine law, and no knowing violations of public records laws.

Investigators cleared Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham, a subcontractor for Parsons Brinckerhoff, of allegations she lobbied county officials during the Go Hillsborough procurement process.

"Communications between Beth Leytham and county officials did not fall within the definition of lobbyist and lobbying provided by the Hillsborough County ordinance applicable to this case, and therefore there was no violation of the lobbying law," Ober wrote.

"We appreciate their determination to ensure the independence of the procurement process," Parsons Brinckerhoff said in a written statement Monday. "We take pride in our projects and look forward to continuing to support the transportation and infrastructure needs of the community."

Leytham said she had "no doubt" she would be cleared and it "feels great to be in a position where everyone else can know it, too."

Leytham said she is ready to see the county's plans to put a half-cent sales tax for transportation on the November ballot move forward.

"I feel ready to push the button to vote 'yes' for transportation," Leytham said. "I know over here on the private side I'm going to do everything I can to be helpful and to transition this to a strong campaign team.

"I think we can still get it over the goal line."

The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office did conclude that Murman "unknowingly" violated Florida's public records law by failing to preserve public records and that all commissioners and their staffs should get training on what the law requires. Murman's training should take place within 180 days, Ober said.

"It is evident that within Hillsborough County government there was some confusion regarding what constitutes a public record and how it is to be preserved," he wrote.

Ober's office has statutory authority to prosecute alleged criminal violations of Florida's open meetings and public records laws, but also to determine that only a civil violation occurred — meaning, without intent — and to impose a civil penalty. Murman could have been fined up to $500, but the state attorney instead opted to order public records training.

Murman said Monday she did not know back in 2014 that she was supposed to save those text messages.

"At the time, we did not and still do not have today a retention policy," Murman said. "I'm absolutely going to propose that. ... Clearly, now, I save everything, make copies of it and retain."

Investigators spoke with at least 24 people, all of them connected in some way to the referendum, to Leytham or to the Parsons contract. The detectives pulled hundreds of phone calls, text messages and emails.

The county also conducted three separate inquiries besides the criminal investigation. It conducted its own audit of the contract. Then it hired forensic examiners to look at the procurement process. And it hired the Freeh Group — run by former FBI Director Louis Freeh — to make sure the sheriff's office conducted a fair and thorough investigation.

Each of those examinations found no wrongdoing.

Members of the Hillsborough County Tea Party who have been critical of the procurement process and Go Hillsborough as a whole said there are still questions that need to be answered.

"We'll just wait and see what commissioners want to be associated with (Go Hillsborough) and what businesses want to give up millions of dollars to support a deal that's dead on arrival," party co-founder Sharon Calvert said. "There's still ethics investigations going on. Where are those going to go?"

Tea party activist Ken Roberts said even though he believes the process was flawed, he was not surprised the sheriff's investigation did not show any transgressions.

"I really didn't expect anything other than a self-serving report," Roberts said. "If the county clerk is not going to be a champion for the people and use her independence as an elected official … and use her own audit team, then nobody's going to.

"There's nowhere for a citizen to turn to get a remedy."

County Administrator Mike Merrill said he was "relieved" to get the results of the investigation, but not surprised to learn there were no violations. Despite what criticism members of the Tea Party might raise, Merrill said the purpose of asking for the investigation was never to attempt to satisfy the detractors, but instead, to ensure there is public trust in the initiative going forward.

"That's an important cornerstone of everything we do, but particularly of asking people to decide to tax themselves," Merrill said. "The most important thing for this community is to come together and fix our transportation system. Whatever that is, we need to get it done. We don't have time to get diverted from this."

Connect Tampa Bay executive director Kevin Thurman said the important thing is to "move on from the nay-sayers" and refocus the conversation on transportation.

"We just spent six months and who knows how many dollars investigating a claim that turned out to be completely false," Thurman said. "We've been waiting for decades to try to solve our transportation problems and there's no reason why we should be listening to the tea parties and the lobbyists."

In September, Merrill asked Sheriff David Gee to look at the county's contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff, a multinational engineering firm hired to conduct public outreach for Go Hillsborough. Merrill had asked the Sheriff's Office to determine whether any county or state laws were broken or any ethics rules violated.

It was an unusual request by Merrill, aimed at restoring public confidence in Go Hillsborough, the plan to fund transportation improvements with a sales tax increase approved by county voters.

Last year the proposed referendum became mired in controversy over whether Parsons Brinckerhoff was awarded the $1.35 million contract because it hired Leytham as a subcontractor.

Leytham, 53, has been called the Tampa Bay area's "Damage Control Queen" because of her media savvy, work ethic, high-profile clients and deep knowledge of local business and government. Parsons Brinckerhoff hired her as a subcontractor on Go Hillsborough for $187,000.

In an August 2014 text message to Merrill before Parsons Brinckerhoff was awarded the contract, Leytham said she had communicated with county commissioners Murman and Ken Hagan about "transpo and communications." But she did not mention Parsons Brinckerhoff in her communications with Merrill and has maintained she did nothing wrong.

Critics have complained that the county did not open the contract up to other bidders.

In response, county officials have said that wasn't necessary because they awarded the contract to a pre-approved contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff, that had already gone through a competitive screening process.

The county did so under the Competitive Consultants Negotiations Act, a Florida law that allows local governments to create a short list of companies that can provide engineering, architecture, surveying and mapping services as needed. Parsons Brinckerhoff was added to that list in 2012 after a competitive search that included 53 firms.

Last year, a county auditor concluded the contract was awarded legally.

Separate from the sheriff's investigation, the Florida Commission of Ethics is investigating citizen complaints against Hagan and Murman related to the Parsons Brinckerhoff contract.

Now that the investigation is over, the stage may be set for the Hillsborough County Commission to finally decide whether to put the Go Hillsborough referendum on this November's ballot. As proposed, the referendum would seek voter approval of a half-cent sales tax hike that would bring in an estimated $117 million a year for transportation projects.

During the sheriff's investigation, support for Go Hillsborough grew shakier. Two commissioners from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Murman and Kevin Beckner , have floated their own alternative transportation plans. It's unclear what iteration of the plan commissioners will move forward with, though they're expected to vote on that in April.

Commissioner Victor Crist, considered to be the swing vote who will determine whether a sales tax referendum is placed on the ballot, said the investigation took longer than he expected and that "hurts" the chances of something passing.

"It's pretty late," Crist said. "There's going to have to be strong leadership and quick movements to get Go Hillsborough going."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

No charges or finding of improper influence in sheriff's investigation of $1.35 million Go Hillsborough contract 03/14/16 [Last modified: Monday, March 14, 2016 7:37pm]
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