Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Politics

Troubles persisted for years at Port of Tampa chairman's properties

TAMPA — The dead body decomposed for two weeks inside an 84-square-foot apartment.

The man died inside his cramped motel room, police said. Officers found garbage and clothes strewn about. The air reeked. The tenant was 70, dead of natural causes.

No one had seen him for days. Then the landlord told someone to go find him. The rent was due.

The landlord was Tampa Port Authority Chairman William A. "Hoe" Brown.

That February 2009 incident, revealed in police records, shows that problems at Brown's properties in Seminole Heights go back much farther than the chairman has said they do.

A inquiry Monday by the Tampa Bay Times led Brown to apologize and remove five squalid mobile homes he illegally rented behind his property management office at 106 W Stanley St.

Earlier this week, Brown said he put them there late last year. When told police records show a trailer on the property before last year, he acknowledged Thursday night that one unit had been there since 2006.

Among the records proving tenants lived behind Brown's office well before last year was a 2006 domestic violence case in which a man punched his girlfriend, police said, in "the trailer . . . located behind the house" at 106 W Stanley St.

In the 2009 death investigation at the nearby motel, police noted a witness lived nearby in a "trailer in the backyard" behind Brown's office.

The man who died in 2009 was one of at least four of Brown's tenants to die — two of overdoses and another in a fatal stabbing after he started a fight with a man across the street — at or near his now-infamous office and motel properties at the corner of W Stanley Street and N Florida Avenue in the past eight years, police records show.

Brown's permitting problems with the city of Tampa intensified Thursday.

Brown keeps his business office inside the house at 106 W Stanley St., along with five apartments. City officials said he never has applied for the proper permits for either an office or apartments at the property. His property company has been registered there since 1995, state records show, while police have responded to calls involving tenants there since at least 2005.

Neighborhood zoning rules allow the home at 106 W Stanley St. to be used for residential or office use, the city said. But Brown never asked.

"They have never received the proper permission from the city of Tampa to change the use of their properties," said Julia Mandell, acting city attorney.

As for the five apartments Brown rented inside the house, she added: "They've never pulled building permits, and we've never had the opportunity to inspect."

Brown, through his personal spokeswoman Beth Leytham, said he intends to bring the office/apartments/house at 106 W Stanley St. into compliance.

The mobile home tenants Brown quickly ejected this week — he paid out $1,500 in cash apiece to relocate them — said they paid $550 a month, including water and electricity, to live there. But how Brown could have accomplished that is a mystery.

"We have no idea how that water and sewer service was extended to the trailers," said city spokeswoman Ali Glisson.

Through a trust, Brown owns three parcels that form the corner of N Florida Avenue and W Stanley Street. Before this week, the two parcels on W Stanley had illegally rented mobile homes on them. The motel he owns at 7908 N Florida Ave. does appear to be in compliance with zoning and permitting rules. The motel is where three of the four dead tenants lived, records show.

Some former tenants said the squalor there matches that of the mobile homes removed this week after code officials called them "not fit for human habitation."

"It was the worst eight months of my life," said Denise Galban, 39, who lived in a one-bedroom unit there with her daughter, Lila, now 15, from October to May.

When Galban and her daughter moved in, she said, they found a filthy mattress infested with bed bugs, and a small table in the room inhabited by roaches. The bugs fell out as Galban dragged the table from her apartment.

In 2004, Galban was convicted of grand theft and burglary, a crime she admits, and she was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, records show. The conviction has haunted her, she said, preventing her from getting decent jobs. She works in a sandwich shop in Tampa. When she finally got enough money to afford a better place, she moved.

"We live with slumlords like that," Galban said, "because we have no place else to go."

Tampa officials were at a loss Thursday to explain how properties owned by Brown, a prominent GOP fundraiser appointed by two governors to an unpaid position helping oversee the Port of Tampa, could fall into such chaos without the city acting sooner.

Code enforcement official Jake Slater said he plans to reach out to at least eight city departments — including police and fire — and come up with a plan to fix whatever is still wrong on Brown's properties. They'll need to tackle these two questions:

"What are we going to do now," he said, "and how come we didn't do it in the past?"

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

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