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Hillsborough road agency post adds chaos

Two days after a state investigation raised concerns that Hillsborough County's toll road agency was adrift and in disarray, the answer to one basic question was still unclear.

Who is in charge of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority?

The Auditor General's Nov. 29 preliminary report said the agency's seven-member board made a mistake in appointing Jim Drapp to its new position of "temporary interim executive director."

Because Drapp was vice president of HNTB, which had a five-year, multimillion dollar contract with the agency, he had a conflict in his new position as head of an agency overseeing that contract, the report stated.

But Rhea Law, the Expressway Authority's interim general counsel, is quoted in the report providing this explanation: Drapp didn't have a conflict because he had been asked to merely continue his regular contractual duties as the agency's general engineering consultant.

"We do not believe it was the intent of the board to give (Drapp) additional duties or responsibilities which would fall under the executive director," Law is quoted as saying.

Yet the report contradicts Law's explanation.

"The audio tapes of the board meetings demonstrate a clear intention of appointing a person to temporarily perform the functions of an executive director," it states.

Asked to clarify what Drapp's status at the agency was, Law reiterated in a statement Friday that after he was appointed, Drapp had not overstepped the "confines of his role" as the agency's general engineering contractor. Law pointed out Drapp "is not an employee of the authority."

Drapp's uncertain status just won't do, said board member Gwen Miller.

"If we're wrong, we need to correct it, said Miller, who said she make the motion to revisit Drapp's appointment.

The board will vote Dec. 18 on an interim executive director.

Ralph Mervine, the man who Drapp was appointed to replace temporarily, quit his $208,000 a year job after it was learned he owned a gay porn production company that he hadn't disclosed. Last week, the Times reported that Mervine had ties to a company, Driggers Construction, Inc., that was paid more than $400,000 by the agency after he came aboard in late 2004.

After three weeks of not returning calls, he called the Times Friday and denied any conflict.

He said he fully disclosed that Driggers had been using his general contractor's license before he was hired. Steve Anderson, the agency's then-legal counsel, has said he didn't learn about Mervine's relationship to Driggers until after he was hired.

Mervine said he made it a point not to attend meetings where the payments to Driggers were discussed in order to avoid conflict.

"I did everything I was supposed to do," Mervine said.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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