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Mason investigation: Where's it headed?

Weeks after a federal grand jury started investigating the private ambulance company founded by City Council member Ronnie Mason, it's hard not to wonder what it might amount to.

Neither Mason nor his business partner, City Council attorney David Carr, has been charged with a crime. They deny having done anything improper. And despite breathless news reports of grand jury proceedings, there has been no disclosure of a smoking gun _ no bribe or other obvious incriminating act.

So what is the supposed crime here?

Some former prosecutors think the investigation is about whether Mason, a former transportation regulator, used powers as a public official to obtain ambulance licenses worth millions of dollars.

The focus could be a secret agreement Mason and Carr signed with a potential competitor shortly before their licenses were approved. If the grand jury believes Mason abused his authority, the lawyers say, he could be charged with extortion under the Hobbs Act _ a law commonly used to prosecute corrupt labor organizations.

The grand jury looking at Mason's and Carr's company, AmeriCare Ambulance, is scheduled to meet again Wednesday. Among the witnesses expected to testify is George K. Collins, AmeriCare's general manager.

Whether or not any charges result, the political landscape has certainly changed since the investigation began. Mason has stepped aside as council chairman and has announced he won't seek re-election to the council next year. Tony Gonzalo, the longtime executive director of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission at the center of the controversy, surprised many with the announcement of his retirement earlier this year.

Mason's actions have also been challenged in civil court by Frank Griswold, an unsuccessful applicant for ambulance permits whom Mason and the transportation commission voted down six months before Mason resigned.

Griswold alleges that Mason conspired with others to wrongly deny him the licenses. Griswold's suit is on hold pending the grand jury investigation.

The secrecy of grand jury proceedings, of course, prevents any definitive account of the investigation so far. Neither Mason nor Carr nor their attorneys would comment for this story.

Two former federal prosecutors did discuss the generalities of the case, on the basis of news reports. Without claiming any inside knowledge of the facts, or assuming Mason's or Carr's guilt on any charge, the lawyers say the allegations fall into the category where corruption can be effected by something as subtle as the wink of an eye.

"There's rarely a smoking gun," said George Tragos of Clearwater.

"More typically, it's "When you retire from the commission I guarantee you this job with the company, if you vote for this,' " Tragos said. "It's harder to trace."

The Hobbs Act prohibits using one's official powers to obtain something of value from someone else.

One of the most controversial aspects of Mason's deal has been the secret agreement he signed with American Medical Response, which a year ago was the only private ambulance company in Hillsborough County.

After the deal was signed, AMR agreed not to oppose Mason's application to start an ambulance company of his own. For his part, Mason promised to give AMR the first chance to buy his company, should he ever want to sell.

No copy of the agreement has been made public. But those who signed it say it was completed around the time, December 1996, that Mason resigned from the public body that regulates AMR and other ambulance companies, the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.

AMR's agreement not to oppose Mason's application was followed by Mason and Carr's obtaining 15 private ambulance licenses worth millions of dollars.

If AMR signed the agreement out of a fear Mason would use his official capacities to retaliate against them, lawyers say, that could be the basis for a Hobbs charge.

"It's about fear of economic loss from the victim's point of view," Tragos said. "If the defendant had the power to harm the victim, then the defendant would exploit that to the victim's detriment."

"It's not a direct threat," Tragos said. "It can be just that the victim understands that if (the official) doesn't vote their way, they won't get what they need."

Mason signed his resignation letter from the public transportation commission five days after he and Carr incorporated their new ambulance company. As a member of the public transportation commission, Mason had exerted power over local ambulance companies in several ways.

Even after Mason resigned he remained on the City Council, which has authority over the budget of the fire department, which dispatches emergency and non-emergency ambulances by radio.

In deciding whether an act may be criminal, intent is key, the lawyers say. The first-refusal agreement was first disclosed in the Times last year, six months after Mason's company was approved. Whether Mason kept it secret on purpose is an important issue.

"It could have been just naive action on his part," Tragos said. "Or, the more you look at it, it could look more and more like deliberate activity. . . . Was it designed to mislead? That's the real key."

A deliberate failure to reveal vital information could lead to a charge of fraud, Tragos said.

Charges of mail fraud or wire fraud could result if the mails or interstate communications played a role in the formation of Mason's company, said Bill Jung, another ex-federal prosecutor.

"Mail fraud statutes . . . have become a general law enforcement tool, in a way that the writers of the Bill of Rights never envisioned," Jung said.

There could be other charges as well, Jung said _ conspiracy, for example, if it was shown that two people worked together to break the law.

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