Saturday, April 21, 2018
Transportation

Expletive-laden text messages show rancor, dissent among PTC leadership

TAMPA — The sometimes expletive-laden text messages between former Public Transportation Commission executive director Kyle Cockream and his top staffer were never meant to come to light.

But they did.

In texts sent from his personal cellphone, Cockream and PTC chief inspector Brett Saunders joked about putting then-PTC chairman Victor Crist onto a bonfire.

Saunders also sent a text to his boss that called Crist a "f------ idiot," and he hurled a similar expletive about state Sen. Dana Young.

The text messages were recovered by a forensic investigator as part of a public records lawsuit filed against the PTC by a Sarasota law firm. Attorneys there are seeking records to see whether the PTC was too cozy with the owners of taxicab and limousine firms it regulates.

The recovered texts date from October and November, a period when Cockream was getting criticized for using taxicab drivers in PTC sting operations to ticket Uber and Lyft drivers. Crist, who is also a Hillsborough County commissioner, was among those who blasted Cockream.

"Tell Victor (Crist) to kiss your a--. You work for the board not him," Saunders texted Cockream on Oct. 16.

"I've had enough of this crap," Cockream replied the same day, adding that he had hired an attorney to "watch his back."

Cockream, a former Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigator, stepped down from his $150,000 job running the PTC at the end of December.

Saunders, who worked for the Sheriff's Office as a sergeant, still works at the PTC. He joined the agency in 2015 and earns about $71,000 a year, records show. He did not return a call seeking comment.

Cockream could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Michael Carey, did not return a call.

Other texts show that Saunders told his boss during the controversy that he should not resign and, instead, wait to be fired so he would be eligible for a severance payout.

"And before they fire you. Fire me so I can get it (too). Oh with a 90 day severance package," he texted.

In an exchange sent after then-state Rep. Young requested that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate the relationship between the PTC and the taxicab industry, Cockream and Saunders criticized her decision.

"There was no quid pro quo. We didn't hide anything. We used volunteers to help us. F--- her too," Saunders wrote.

Young, a Tampa Republican elected to the state Senate in November, is among the backers of a local bill to abolish the PTC.

"I would never have expected anyone at the PTC to be happy about my request for an FDLE investigation," Young said.

As for the tone of the texts, she said, "It's not surprising at all. The agency and its management does continue to disappoint on a seemingly daily basis."

PTC chairman Al Higginbotham received a copy of the text messages from the County Attorney's Office. He was unsure whether the PTC board would want to take disciplinary action against Saunders. There is no item on the PTC board agenda to discuss the texts.

"It's an uncomfortable situation we're in," Higginbotham said. "I don't know what is protected by free speech and what is not. It's a discussion I will have with the county attorney."

The forensic investigator in November found that Cockream's agency phone had been reset in October, a process that wipes it clean. It later emerged that weeks before the investigator was given Cockream's cellphones, the PTC paid Valrico firm Data Specialist Group to do work on them and six other PTC phones including Saunders'.

The FDLE has opened a preliminary inquiry into the PTC's handling of public records.

Crist, who was the target of some of the texts, said he was very disappointed in what he called a "gross lack of ethics and professionalism from two certified law enforcement officers."

"It's not my place to tell the board what to do," he said, "but if I were still chairman, there would be some dismissals."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

 
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