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Why is a Jacksonville personal injury law firm helping to challenge Hillsborough's transportation tax?

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White has filed his own lawsuit seeking to strike down the county's one-cent sales tax for transportation. {CHRIS URSO/STAFF]
Published Mar. 14

TEMPLE TERRACE — A man with a history of not paying taxes is the face of a new legal challenge to Hillsborough County's transportation tax.

Temple Terrace resident John Cimino is the only plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed last week on behalf of Hillsborough taxpayers. Cimino, 48, owed the federal government about $121,000 in unpaid taxes in May, according to an IRS lien. He also foreclosed on a home in 2014 and was ordered to pay a bank $182,000 in 2017.

Despite this, Cimino has legal representation from a high-powered Washington D.C. law firm and an accident and injury law firm whose principal has ties to the two attorneys representing County Commissioner Stacy White, who has filed his own lawsuit seeking to strike the tax down.

The amount of legal firepower assisting Cimino has members of the citizen's group that got the tax on the ballot convinced the class-action lawsuit is another attempt by a group that includes White, state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, and prominent Republican donor Martin Garcia to derail the tax. It was approved by 57 percent of county voters in last year's midterm election.

"In November voters overwhelmingly supported funding to fix our transportation system, over the active opposition of Stacy White," said All for Transportation Chairman Tyler Hudson. "Having lost on Election Day, White and his team are trying to sabotage the voters' will with frivolous lawsuits. Tragically, taxpayers are footing the bill while our transportation crisis grows worse."

That claim is denied by White. "I have no involvement in the new lawsuit," he said in an email to the Times.

Reached at his home, Cimino declined to comment. But the choice of Coker Law — a Jacksonville firm that specializes in medical malpractice cases along with vehicle crashes, personal injury and workers compensation — to fight a lawsuit about a $15.8 billion, 30-year county sales tax, has fueled speculation that his case is linked to White's.

Howard Coker, a principal of the firm, knows Garcia through legal circles. He and Garcia, a former member of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, have been described as friends and have fished together, according to a Florida Bar Journal article. In 2009, Garcia presented Coker with a lifetime achievement award from the American Justice Association. Neither returned calls for this story.

White's other lawyer, Chris Altenbernd, also said he has known Coker "for years."

Chelsea Harris, who also is representing Cimino, said Coker Law has a policy of not commenting on cases while litigation is pending. She would not answer questions regarding how the firm became involved with the Hillsborough case.

Recently released court documents show that White, Lee and Garcia did collaborate on White's lawsuit.

In a Feb. 25 deposition, White said Lee introduced him to Bascom Communicating and Consulting, a Tallahassee political communications firm that agreed to provide free assistance to White with press releases about his lawsuit.

And White said Garcia was the first attorney he consulted with after talking to county legal staff about a challenge to the charter amendment to levy the one-cent sales tax. But Garcia's involvement was omitted from White's press release and Garcia's name did not appear on court filings.

Cellphone text messages included in the deposition show that White had close ties to No Tax for Tracks, an anti-tax group campaigning against the tax.

Though White's photo, words and voice appeared on campaign materials encouraging residents to vote against the tax, he said he was not involved directly in the campaign.

But cellphone text messages included in the deposition show White did exchange texts with both Sharon Calvert, a leader of No Tax for Tracks, and Sam Rashid, an East Hillsborough businessman and frequent Republican donor. Among the topics discussed were when campaign materials were mailed, what robotexts supporters of the tax were sending, and how much it would cost for opponents of the tax to send their own robotexts.

In one text sent close to Oct. 18, Calvert told White they had a vendor ready to send the robotexts but would need more money: "Any help greatly appreciated!"

White responded "Ok." and followed that with a thumbs up when Calvert told him it would cost $2,000 to send 10,000 texts.

White told attorneys that Calvert was likely asking for financial help, which he was unable to give.

"I never got involved in that end of it, frankly, because I was raising money for my own reelection campaign," White said. "I just didn't have any resources available to help them in that endeavor."

About 10 days after the texts, No Tax for Tracks received a total of $50,000 in donations from Social Justice, a political action committee.

Over the same period, Social Justice received $50,030 from Committee for Responsible Representation and The Responsible Leadership Committee. Those committees are administered by Tallahassee political operative William S. Jones, a former Alachua County Republic Party chairman well known for operating a system of political committees through which contributions can be funneled, essentially allowing donations to be made anonymously.

Jones has been linked to Lee. He was treasurer of Lee's now defunct The Conservative committee, which in October contributed $25,000 to the Committee for Responsible Representation. Lee did not return calls seeking comment.

Both White and Cimino's lawsuits seek to overturn the tax, saying it violates Florida law. Each complaint argues that the charter amendment unlawfully restricts the county commission's ability to make the final decision on how the tax revenue is spent. The tax, which went into effect Jan. 1, is expected to raise $302 million in its first year.

The ballot initiative referendum voters approved in November dictates what percentage of the revenue can be spent on certain projects, like transit, intersections, sidewalks and roads. It also creates an independent oversight committee that can deny the allocation of money if a project does not fit that spending formula.

Unlike White's lawsuit, which was filed in December and names 10 defendants, Cimino's complaint only names one: Hillsborough County. His class-action suit represents every Hillsborough County resident who has paid the surtax as part of a purchase made in 2019.

All for Transportation filed a motion to dismiss White's lawsuit, arguing that White violated state law by filing the suit in his capacity as a county commissioner. A judge is expected to consider that motion during a status hearing Thursday.

Lee this year also filed legislation this session that would require that citizen petitions to put tax increases on a ballot be vetted by an independent attorney to ensure they comply with state law. The bill also would require citizen groups, county governments and school boards to qualify for the ballot at least 180 days before an election. All for Transportation submitted its required signatures about 100 days beforehand.

Times correspondent William March and senior researcher Caryn Baird and contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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