TAMPA — How could they be the same man?
"Hoe" Brown, 55, chairman of the Tampa Port Authority, appointed by two governors, was a model public servant. A successful Republican rainmaker who raised cash for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. A real estate investor who touted experience in property management.
Bill Brown the landlord ran illegal, squalid rental properties. The tiny apartments were teeming with roaches. The property was a blight, neighbors said, a locus of criminal activity.
A Tampa Bay Times inquiry last week prompted scrutiny by city code enforcement, and a series of revelations that resulted in Brown's resignation Friday from several public posts, including as the unpaid chairman of the Port Authority board. He apologized, through a spokeswoman, and asserted he became aware of conditions on the property only in May. He has declined interview requests.
As people seek to reconcile the public image of Brown the chairman with the stories told by tenants of Brown the landlord, questions remain: How could a man in the public eye, with a background in real estate, think no one would notice 15 illegal rental units crammed onto his business office property? How could someone help feed the homeless while, tenants say, he lined streets in poor areas with signs targeting those on public assistance, haggled with tenants who complained and evicted those who were short on rent?
"How did he disconnect himself from helping to serve people who are down and out and ill, and then do what he did?" asked Tampa City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin. "It's like Jekyll and Hyde. It's like he was living a double life."
The nickname came from his mother. As a child, when Brown tried to say "hold" or "hold me," friends said, it came out "hoe." The name stuck, and he kept it even after the word acquired a negative connotation.
Born in Orlando in 1957, William A. Brown was one of five children of citrus magnate Alexander "Jerry" Brown, a World War II veteran who served in the Allied invasion of France. After the war, Jerry Brown started Florida Food Products, a juice processing plant. In a 1995 obituary, a friend praised Jerry Brown's business savvy. During crop freezes, his company relied on vegetable concentrates and aloe concentrates, used in cosmetics.
For his livelihood, William Brown chose land. In 1989, he bought a small motel near the Hillsborough River for $50,000. A year earlier, he started a real estate company: J.B. Carrie Properties. In 1996, he bought, through a trust, a nearby home he made J.B. Carrie's business office. In 1998, he added a small lot linking the properties. Combined, Brown controlled less than half an acre at the corner of N Florida Avenue and W Stanley Street. It cost $117,500.
W Stanley Street is at the edge of what Seminole Heights is and what Seminole Heights wants to be. One side offers riverfront property, and some of those landowners have invested in improving their homes. Brown's motel across the street, and its clientele, stick out. The office is a drab white building that looks like it hasn't had a paint job in years.
"It always struck me as odd," said Chris Ingram, a Republican communications consultant. "Hoe is a relatively successful guy, and his office being in that part of town was just different. But I just attributed it to him being thrifty."
• • •
The roaches come out at night, so some of Brown's tenants slept with the lights on.
Victor Gonzalez, 67, didn't mind them, which may be why there were so many. Neighbors could see them on his window at night, specks skittering across the yellow.
A bug woke Charline Mack, 35, a few weeks ago, as it crawled into her ear. She started stuffing cotton balls in her ears at night, she said, and in the ears of her 4- and 5-year-old sons.
Who would live here?
People who want to do things other places don't allow. Amid the hundreds of Tampa police calls for service there over the years, records show, many were for reports of drug crimes.
People who don't have better options. Like Mike Lentz. In 1998, then 17, he went running through his neighborhood with two guns. He shot at police and missed. They shot more than 40 times, hitting him with seven to 17 rounds. He survived. Now 32, Lentz has a long criminal record, but says he's reformed. He has a kidney ailment that gives constant pain, he says, and keeps him from working.
Last year, Lentz and his girlfriend saw signs for Brown's rentals on utility poles along Nebraska Avenue. When they saw the roughly 200-square-foot portion of a mobile home Brown intended to rent for $540 per month, they weren't happy. But they were homeless. It had a roof, a shower, a mini-fridge and a TV.
It also had bugs. Gonzalez was their neighbor, and Lentz said he asked Brown to tent the trailer. Brown sent workers to spray a mixture of something, Lentz said, that did nothing. Brown has said through a spokeswoman that Lentz did not bring the bugs to his attention until last week.
Unlike her boyfriend, Lisa Harvey, 25, has no criminal record. She's learning disabled. They're on food stamps. She's on Social Security disability. He is applying. They met over a meal at the Trinity Cafe, a nonprofit that feeds the homeless and whose board Brown used to serve on.
In June, Lentz and Harvey had a daughter. They named her Raven and, after considerable debate, put her up for adoption. They had no prospects of moving, they said, and didn't want to raise a child there.
• • •
The tenants call him Bill, but everyone else calls him Hoe.
Active in local Republican circles since the 1990s, Brown developed a reputation as a hard worker, comfortable among country folk Republicans and country club Republicans.
"People who write big checks and go to black-tie events with big muckety-mucks don't go out and hang up (campaign) signs at 2 a.m. two nights before an election," said the GOP consultant Ingram. "But Hoe Brown would."
Brown developed connections. He could deliver a network of donors, and he earned high-profile fundraising posts. His website features pictures of him with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, former candidate Romney, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and John McCain.
As an appointed official, Brown did not have to disclose his net worth, like elected officials must. His financial disclosure form lists, as his income, rental properties and investments, with no dollar amounts. He owns 15 commercial and residential properties in the Tampa, Orlando and Gainesville areas.
He and his wife live in a 2,600-square-feet brown brick home in South Tampa. They bought it in 2003 through a trust for $485,000, records show. They have no children. The house has a neatly trimmed lawn, shaded by trees, as well as a patio and a deck.
• • •
Joyce Harris has lived next door to Brown's office since he bought it. Harris, 50, works in pharmaceutical packaging. Her husband is a truck driver. After 26 years, they're trying to sell. They don't like the way some of Brown's tenants look at their 19-year-old daughter, she said.
Brown has rented out illegal units since at least 2005, police records show, but tenants and neighbors agree he added several more last year.
When she decided to sell, Harris said, she called Brown. She figured no one else would want to buy, with him as a neighbor. Brown told her he wasn't buying anymore, she said. He did ask her to keep him informed of any bids she got. She has not.
Last year, as the mobile homes came in, Harris turned to her husband and asked, "Where in the world is he putting that?" They went in next to her fence.
Harris hopes to move in a month. She wants to stay in the area. Of her soon-to-be former neighbor, Harris said: "I think he just got greedy."
• • •
Denise Galban admits it was partly her fault she ended up in a place like Brown's motel. Galban, 39, had a good upbringing in New Jersey. She got married, had two children, then got divorced and starting drinking too much and using cocaine. She got arrested for theft, fraud, burglary.
When her six months in prison ended in 2008, she found it harder to get jobs. She works at a sandwich shop in West Tampa, making $50 on a good day. Last year she and her daughter Lila, then 14, were living in a place for $200 per week. It was too much. The sign Galban saw advertising furnished apartments for $175 a week looked enticing.
Then they saw the apartment.
The mattress had bedbugs. A table had roaches. After removing both and bringing in an air mattress, they learned about the plumbing. The toilets routinely backed up and overflowed, she said. When this happened, Brown had workers shut off the water until he could get the pipes fixed. Sometimes, she said, it took days.
A few units down from Galban, she said, a woman in her 30s lived with her disabled mother, who was in a wheelchair. When the water went off, Galban and the woman bought bottled water so they could bathe the mother.
One of the times the water went off, Lila Galban asked Brown to turn it back on, she said. He told her it would be a while, she said, and if she wanted water she could use the hose. But she had to get her own bucket.
"He's a horrible human being," Denise Galban said. "There is no compassion in that man."
A few months after the Galbans moved in, they witnessed a woman being evicted for not having the rent. She had three children all under the age of 10. The youngest was a newborn.
Galban does not remember the date. She thinks it was November or December. She remembers it was cold.
• • •
Friday morning, the Times emailed Brown's spokeswoman, describing stories told by Galban, Lentz and more than 10 other former tenants. Friday afternoon, he announced his resignation from all his public positions. Among them: Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County's tourism agency; the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which promotes amateur athletics; and Republican state committeeman for Hillsborough County, an elected party position.
Tugboat operator Stephen Swindal, a friend of Brown's who serves on the port's board, now becomes chairman.
"If he's done something improper," Swindal said last week, "I am sure he will be the first to make it right because he is that type of person."
Saturday, Brown released a statement: "I strongly deny mistreating anyone. I have provided stable housing with electricity, including air conditioning, and indoor plumbing to people struggling with very serious personal issues and who otherwise may have gone homeless. I have attended to property maintenance matters as quickly as possible once made aware of them."
One tenant who probably would have spoken well of Brown was Vincent Angel, tenants said. He went by Vinnie and lived with his cat, also named Vinnie. Angel was missing his bottom row of teeth, according to tenants and police reports, and he had a thin mustache and a mullet.
Brown did not charge Angel rent, Angel told the other tenants, as long as he did things like post signs on utility poles and handle evictions. Though he worked for Brown, some of the tenants said they still liked him.
Angel, 60, contracted liver cancer. He went back to Pittsburgh earlier this year to be with family. He has weeks to live, relatives said this week, and he declined to comment.
• • •
In April, Galban got a tax refund check and she and her daughter moved into a rental house. It has three bedrooms, one bathroom and a back yard. Galban smiles when she talks about it .
There's not much about her time as Brown's tenant that makes her smile. There is one memory she likes, though. Every Friday, Galban and friends would sit on the motel's porch and talk about whatever Brown had done that day. They agreed that if he ever ran for a higher office they'd go to the press and tell them about the Brown they knew.
"Getters get got," Galban said.
"He's a getter," she said. "But he got got. He finally got what he deserved."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: In 1989, "Hoe" Brown bought a small motel near the Hillsborough River. Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online gave an incorrect date.