Sorry, but "trust me" doesn't cut it. Kevin White deserves the benefit of the doubt now that a convicted swindler has alleged arranging payoffs to the Hillsborough County commissioner. But the blanket denial White issued in a recent statement leaves too many unanswered questions. He needs to recognize that his current image problem is compounded by his checkered ethical history. The FBI has a responsibility to clear the air, too. Now that these allegations are public, the community deserves to know the facts.
In letters from prison, Matthew B. Cox said he steered thousands of dollars to then-Tampa City Council candidate White's 2003 campaign. In return, Cox said, White agreed to vote his way on rezoning land in Ybor City and Tampa Heights. The federal public defender who represented him said Cox told his story over several days to FBI agents as part of a plea bargain before Cox was sentenced in November for forgery, fraud and identity theft. Cox said he and others in a Tampa real estate investment firm solicited contributions for White from business associates, friends and family, and then reimbursed those donors — which, if true, is a violation of Florida election law. Cox said White agreed to support his land development requests, if elected, and said he gave White $7,000 in cash to help him win the runoff election.
White, in his statement, attacked the allegations as the "jailhouse ramblings of a reputed con man." He said he was not aware of any campaign contributions being reimbursed and that he had no deal with Cox and had not been contacted by any law enforcement agency. But several people who contributed toward the at least $8,000 that was given by Cox and his connections said they were repaid. Cox also said some of the money he gave White came from a fraud he and a friend pulled off in Orlando, where they used a phony identity — Michael Kevin White.
Cox said White never got the chance to help because Cox skipped town in late 2003, when the St. Petersburg Times published an account of Cox's business dealings and before he could file any zoning requests with the City Council. That hole in the story, along with his character and motivation for seeking a reduced prison term, put Cox's allegations into a larger context. Still, the contributions to White and the statements by Cox and his attorney are enough for the FBI to say whether it took the allegations seriously.
White could fill in some gaps by being more forthcoming about his dealings with Cox. In early 2004, after he and former City Council member Bob Buckhorn were told that illegal contributions from Cox and his associates might have been made to their campaigns, Buckhorn went promptly to the police. Not White. He didn't go to the cops, call for an investigation or express much concern. That same insensitivity to ethics and appearances have marred almost his entire time in elected life — whether he was trying to raise his own salary, or spending campaign contributions on Italian suits, or intervening with police who gave his friend a traffic ticket.
White said he asked the FBI this month to issue a statement one way or the other. White and the public deserve to know where things stand.