Thursday, January 18, 2018
Politics

Officials take closer look at Tampa port chairman's 'shocking' rentals

TAMPA — The decrepit and illegal mobile homes were gone. So were the tenants who complained the chairman of the Tampa Port Authority took their money and left them to live in conditions the city's top code enforcement official calls "shocking."

But a day after the roach-infested units were hauled away from a Seminole Heights neighborhood, officials in the city, county and state were starting to unravel the mess in William A. "Hoe" Brown's back yard.

"He's simply a slumlord," Tampa City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said Wednesday. "He took advantage of people who had very few choices."

Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez said his office is investigating whether Brown owes taxes for the undeclared improvements to his office property. Despite living conditions a city official called deplorable, the mobile homes technically represented an improvement that generated income for Brown.

Tampa code enforcement official Jack Slater, when informed Wednesday afternoon that Brown also had rented out apartments inside his office building at 106 W Stanley St., said he will send his inspectors back to the property.

No rental certificates have been found for those apartments, Slater said. The certificates are required to rent property.

A Tampa Bay Times inquiry Monday prompted a visit to the property by code officials, who termed the mobile homes there "not fit for human habitation."

Brown, 55, a top GOP fundraiser, had the homes removed and paid hundreds in cash to his former tenants to get them to accept short-notice evictions.

Brown has declined to answer questions this week, except through a spokeswoman. He has apologized and said he's taking responsibility.

Brown has been on the port's governing board since 2008, but was reappointed in 2011 by Gov. Rick Scott.

"We are aware of the recent news and are reaching out to Mr. Brown regarding the troubling accusations," said Melissa Sellers, the governor's communications director.

Afterward, Brown released a statement Wednesday saying he spoke to the governor's staff.

"I asked them to share with the governor that I have publicly apologized, taken responsibility for this situation, removed the trailers and done all I can to ease the transition for the tenants," said Brown.

Brown said he was unaware of the conditions in the homes behind his office until May. Code officials, however, said they told him in April the mobile homes violated zoning rules.

Tampa police records show the property's troubles date back much further. Officers have answered 82 calls for service to Brown's office address from January 2012 through this week. Many were reports of crimes such as robbery, assault and battery, and grand theft.

The most serious call was on March 3 — a death investigation. Police said they found one of Brown's tenants dead of a drug overdose inside one of the apartments in the same building at 106 W Stanley St. where Brown keeps his office. A 38-year-old mother of two was found inside her unit, police said, just a few feet from Brown's office.

In a statement, Brown said he was aware of the death.

Still, city code officials said they find it hard to believe he was unaware of the conditions in the units behind his office.

"He was not an absentee landlord," Slater said. "He was right there, on the premises and he would have had to have known the condition."

Capin, the council member, was particularly troubled Brown added at least 10 rental units to his office property without trying to obtain permits from the city. Brown cited his three decades of experience as a real estate developer when he first applied to be named to the port board.

"He's in real estate. You have to know you need permits," she said. "Sometimes when people get so much power, they lose sight. They think they can get away with anything. And there's no place for those people in public policy-making."

Capin called on Brown to resign from his unpaid position on the board, which oversees the billion-dollar economic engine that is the Port of Tampa.

"He does not intend to resign," said Brown's spokeswoman, Beth Leytham.

Brown's fellow board members, who unanimously selected him chairman last year, praised his tenure. But they also said his fate should be decided by Brown and the governor — and Scott is the only one who could remove him from the board.

"I think it's between him and the governor who appoints him," said Port Commissioner Patrick Allman.

"Hoe Brown is my friend," said Port Commissioner Stephen Swindal, "and until I know more details I will continue to support him because he's my friend."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who also sits on the board, said Brown has been a good chairman. He also agreed that it's the governor's call to make.

But the illegal mobile homes, the squalid conditions, all of it took place in Buckhorn's city.

"I'm not happy," the mayor said. "Hoe knows better. He shouldn't have done it. He got caught and he's trying to fix it. But we shouldn't have gotten to this point in the first place."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected]m or (813) 226-3404. Will Hobson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.

CORRECTION: William A. "Hoe" Brown is 55 years old. Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online gave an incorrect age.

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