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 newly created 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. In fact, Law pointed out, Drapp "is not an employee of the authority."
Friday was the end of Drapp's third week at the authority's helm.
It won't be until Dec. 18 that the board will vote on an interim executive director. 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 may make the motion to revisit Drapp's appointment.
But board members Bob Clark and Don Skelton said they weren't reconsidering Drapp's appointment.
Law said she will clarify Drapp's status. Drapp couldn't be reached.
Questions about conflicts of interest are by no means an abstraction at the Expressway Authority.
Allegations of conflicts emerged in late August, sparking the auditor general inquiry after an earlier probe by the governor's office found evidence of impropriety.
Ralph Mervine, the man whom 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 phone calls, Mervine called the Times on 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.
Leaving the room
When asked why a URS Corp. consultant, Bill McDaniel, had told the Times last week that Mervine regularly attended meetings where the Driggers payments were discussed, Mervine said he would leave the room if he was at a meeting where the payments came up.
URS Corp. is the company that oversaw construction of the elevated crosstown lanes.
Law and the agency have 30 days to respond to the audit's findings.
Board members were in no rush to analyze the findings.
Chairman J. Thomas Gibbs told a reporter he was in a meeting and offered to return her phone call on Monday. Then he hung up.
Skelton said he hadn't read the report yet.
"I need to read all of the findings and put that into context," he said, adding that he planned to go over it this weekend.
Clark said he had been too busy at work and hadn't read the report.
"That's one of my hobby jobs," he said, referring to his position on the board. "Hell, we've got 30 days to respond. It's not like a crisis tonight."
Waiting to comment
A spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush said he had not seen the initial draft of the report.
She said it would be premature to comment before the report includes the agency's response.
"We look forward to the findings and recommendations once it's final, and we'll review it at that time," spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said.
A local legislator said the preliminary audit further supports his plan to file a bill in the coming weeks that would seek to dismantle the Expressway Authority in favor of a regional authority.
"This is another perfect example as to why we need to abolish it," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "You give them enough opportunities to fix themselves, and they've neglected to do that. They keep coming up with more problems."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3402.