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TECO to be target of criminal probe if this Democrat is elected Florida Attorney General

Ryan Torrens says if he's elected, he'll launch an investigation into a June 2017 incident at the Big Bend power plant
TECO's Big Bend power plant. [LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times]
TECO's Big Bend power plant. [LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times]
Published May 16, 2018
Updated May 16, 2018

Ryan Torrens, Democratic candidate for state attorney general, said Wednesday that if elected, he will launch a criminal investigation of TECO executives in connection with a June 2017 incident at the Big Bend power plant in which five workers died.

"Five workers died, and another was injured due to TECO's willful disregard for worker safety," Torrens said in a news release. "Perhaps when some of the TECO executives are hauled off in handcuffs, they will start to take worker safety seriously."

Ryan Torrens
Ryan Torrens

Two months after the incident, in which the workers were inundated by molten slag from a coal-fired boiler, a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that TECO had violated its own safety guidelines in sending workers to work on the boiler while it was running. The guidelines had been written following a similar accident in 1997, Times reported.

In December, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined TECO $139,000 in connection with the incident, and an OSHA spokesman said the office would consider whether to refer to the matter to the Department of Justice for a possible criminal investigation.

Torrens, a Tampa consumer foreclosure lawyer, credited the Times for "uncovering the profound failure by TECO to take the safety of its workers seriously."

But he also used the incident to take a veiled shot at his opponent in the Democratic primary, Tampa lawyer and state representative Sean Shaw.

Torrens has previously criticized Shaw for accepting contributions from corporate interests including TECO.

Torrens said the company "uses money from the bills its customers pay to buy political influence and has been making significant contributions to candidates for Florida Attorney General," and called himself "the only candidate in this race refusing even a penny in campaign contributions from TECO."

In an interview, Torrens acknowledged TECO has not offered him a contribution, and said he hasn't asked for one.

Shaw's political committee, Sean Shaw for Florida, recently received $10,000 from TECO.

Torrens said the key to a criminal case in such a situation would be, "What was the knowledge of the top executives – you have to prove the executives had knowledge of the safety failures and were failing to do anything about it."

Prominent criminal attorney John Fitzgibbons of Tampa said he didn't know the facts of the TECO case well enough to comment on it, but that in general, "There is legal precedent for prosecution of corporate officials in some circumstances" in such cases.

He cited the federal prosecution under the Obama-era Justice Department of West Virginia mine owner Don Blankenship, who served a year in prison as result of a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 miners.

Florida's manslaughter statute, Fitzgibbons said, includes a "culpable negligence provision which deals with death caused by reckless disregard of human life."

OSHA gave Tampa Electric its most serious type of citation, a "willful" violation, given when a company intentionally disregards its rules or acts with indifference toward employee safety.

Because the citation was found to be willful, an OSHA spokesman said at the time, OSHA intended to review whether to refer the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for criminal investigation.

But no charges have been filed, and TECO has contested the charge of a "willful" violation.

TECO spokeswoman Sylvia Vega said there is no outcome yet to that appeal.

"We respectfully disagree with OSHA's suggestion that we were willful or deliberately indifferent to the safety of our workers," she said. "We continue our discussion with OSHA as we work through this process."

She said the company had no comment on Torrens' announcement.

RELATED COVERAGE: Hellfire from above — Tampa Electric knew the procedure was dangerous. It sent workers in anyway. 

Tampa Electric planning to convert Big Bend power plant where five died in June from coal to natural gas.