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New e-mails show power struggle at TIA

TAMPA — After he abruptly announced last month that he was leaving his job as executive director of Tampa International Airport, Louis Miller said disputes with two new directors did not lead him to leave the job he had since 1996.

But e-mails released to the St. Petersburg Times on Friday reveal for the first time an entirely different feud, far more severe in tone, that Miller had with the airport's chief attorney, Gigi Rechel.

The e-mails were mostly between Rechel and David Smith, an attorney she hired last month to investigate Miller's handling of zoning cases. They portray the airport's top attorney as torn between competing allegiances: to Miller and to a board that had suddenly become openly critical of the longtime executive director. In one e-mail, Rechel alleged that Miller repeatedly lied to a board member.

Written on Feb. 16 — a week before Miller announced his resignation — the e-mail said Miller yelled at her after a meeting with Steve Burton, one of the new board members who had questioned Miller's management. Miller, the e-mail stated, criticized her for "not backing him up more" in front of Burton.

"I explained (to Miller) I was doing my difficult job of representing the organization when he and (Burton) did not agree on certain issues," Rechel wrote. "My duty is to provide legal advice and guidance and when he made several untruthful statements in the meeting with (Burton) I was not going to participate in that activity."

Asked what those untrue statements were, Rechel said Friday that she didn't recall. Miller said Rechel's allegation was false.

"I did not lie to Burton about anything. I can assure you of that," Miller said.

After the meeting with Burton he might have raised his voice in expressing his disappointment with Rechel, he said. At the meeting they discussed Miller's decision to demolish an office building that the airport owned, a decision that Burton disagreed with. Miller said he felt that Rechel held back and didn't share with Burton information explaining the rationale Miller had in ordering the demolition.

Rechel said Miller wanted her, in front of Burton, to support his decision to demolish the building. She said she wasn't willing to do that. Citing attorney-client privilege, she wouldn't explain why on Friday.

The demolition was stopped in January after Burton alerted Rechel that a real estate broker representing the Moffitt Cancer Center was interested in leasing the building.

Miller said he hadn't reviewed all of the e-mails released Friday and therefore couldn't comment on the entire batch. But he said the ones he did see underscored the disagreements he was having with Rechel, who had worked with him for about 10 years.

"We've had a great relationship," Miller said. "I'm not sure what's been going on."

In several other e-mails, Rechel told Smith that her boss wasn't listening to her advice.

In one case, Rechel determined in late February that the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which runs TIA, had to rebid two projects totaling nearly $20 million because meetings during which the bids were ranked hadn't been advertised.

But the week before, she told Smith that she had warned Miller in January that these meetings needed to be advertised.

"He responded with 'let's discuss,' " Rechel wrote in a Feb. 16 e-mail. "I have not heard back from him on this issue."

She said he brushed off another reminder to advertise meetings.

"I am in an extremely uncomfortable position, but I must protect my board members," Rechel wrote. "A violation of the (Florida's open meetings law) has criminal ramifications to my board members."

Later that day, she wrote Miller asking him to discuss her job duties with her.

"Considering the anger you expressed to me after our meeting with (Burton) … it is clear you do not understand my obligation," Rechel wrote. "I have asked (Smith) to assist us with a discussion of my legal obligations."

As legal counsel, Rechel had authority to hire a special counsel and pay up to $30,000. She said she decided to do so after the Times wrote an article in late January about how Miller had approved zonings for years, despite a state law that required a board to do so. She said she chose Smith, Tampa's former city attorney, because he is an expert in zoning and is respected by board members and Miller.

Smith is still conducting an investigation into the zonings, but he has also expanded his scope to include other matters.

The e-mails showed that Rechel was on friendly terms with Smith well before she hired him to conduct an investigation into her boss.

"Hang in there," Smith told Rechel in a Jan. 4 e-mail. "You're great."

Rechel said that by the time of that e-mail, which was a month before Smith was hired, she had told Smith about her struggles.

"David and I had discussed how to represent an executive director, an organization and a board of directors when sometimes those entities did not agree on subjects," Rechel said Friday.

Smith agreed he was a good person to ask about the topic.

"I represented the mayor, the City Council and the city's departments," Smith said. "It was a very similar format."

They had known each other for years but were friendly only on professional terms, they both said.

When asked whether they ever socialized, Rechel said, "Not at all."

Times staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

New e-mails show power struggle at TIA 03/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 12:02am]
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