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Mason jury interviews regulators

The general manager of City Council member Ronnie Mason's private ambulance company is considering whether to take the Fifth Amendment rather than answer questions from a federal grand jury investigating Mason.

The general manager of AmeriCare Ambulance Service, former Plant City Mayor George K. Collins, spent only three minutes in the grand jury room Wednesday afternoon.

Afterward, Collins' attorney, James Wardell, said he had just been retained. Wardell said he needed time to talk to federal prosecutors to see if Collins would testify, or invoke his constitutional right against self-incrimination, when Collins returns to the grand jury May 20.

Collins said later he had been served with a witness subpoena to appear Wednesday. A prosecutor told him he is not a target of the investigation, Collins said.

Collins formerly served on the regulatory agency at the center of the investigation, the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, which licenses private ambulance companies.

Collins also worked for Am-Stat and MedTrans, two private ambulance companies that have since merged into American Medical Response, the nation's largest private provider.

Also on Wednesday, the retired executive director of the public transportation commission, Tony Gonzalo, spent a little more than a half-hour in front of the grand jury.

Gonzalo, who retired quietly last month after 16 years on the job, declined afterward to answer questions about his appearance.

Tuesday, an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor took custody of three boxes of records from the transportation commission's offices. The records were produced in response to a grand jury subpoena seeking financial records from the agency, as well as material related to the ambulance license applications of Mason and another man, Frank Griswold of Lutz.

After the grand jury session, officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI declined to comment on the proceedings or to describe any possible negotiations with Collins regarding his testimony.

It is clear, though, that the grand jury is continuing to take a close look at the circumstances surrounding the creation of AmeriCare Ambulance by Mason and his business partner, City Council Attorney David Carr.

A number of public officials have appeared before the grand jury, including the four who approved Mason's and Carr's licenses: Hillsborough Commissioner Joe Chillura, City Council members Rudy Fernandez and Joe Greco; and Temple Terrace council member Frank Musolino. Chillura said he was asked about the circumstances of Mason's approval.

In December 1996, Mason resigned from the transportation commission and formed his private ambulance company with Carr. Six months earlier, Mason had voted against the ambulance company application of Griswold, the Lutz resident.

The grand jury also has subpoenaed a secret agreement Mason signed with AMR, which was the only private ambulance service provider in Hillsborough County when Mason and Carr applied.

In it, Mason agreed to give AMR the first chance to buy his company if he decided to sell. In exchange, AMR agreed not to oppose Mason's application.