TAMPA — In his nine years as a Hillsborough County commissioner, Al Higginbotham said he has never seen lobbying quite like what's he's experienced during the search for the next executive director of the Environmental Protection Commission.
"There's so much interest in this," Higginbotham said, "and it reflects in great part the importance of selecting the right director for the EPC."
But Higginbotham's frustration boiled over during the May 6 meeting of the EPC board, which is made up of all seven county commissioners. As commissioners settled on the finalists for the job, Higginbotham criticized the lobbying as "unprofessional," "assertive" and "inappropriate."
"It had no place," he said. "It went overboard."
If history is any indicator, whoever commissioners tap for the job could receive a career-long appointment. In its 45 years, the EPC has had only two executive directors. That makes this a high-stakes decision not only for commissioners, but for businesses the EPC would oversee as the protector of the county's resources and its regulator of pollution and encroachment on wetlands. So it's not surprising industry representatives are letting their voices be heard.
The potential beneficiary of the persistent behind-the-scenes lobbying is Janet Dougherty, commissioners and others involved with the search told the Tampa Bay Times.
Dougherty, 53, a Republican candidate for County Commission in 2014 and president of an environmental consulting firm, initially was not recommended for the job by a search committee. She was added to the mix at the contentious May 6 meeting.
For her part, Dougherty said she is not aware of any campaign on her behalf.
"I want to be selected because of who I am, my passion and my credentials," she told the Times. "What you're telling me is news to me."
Dougherty is well-known, well-liked and has glowing recommendations from officials in Clearwater, the Southwest Water Florida Water Management District and Hillsborough County.
She served on several environmental boards and councils, including Swiftmud's and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program's policy and management boards. In 2007, she was one of hundreds who successfully protested against the county's attempt to eliminate the EPC's wetlands division, a victory that's a point of pride for local environmentalists.
But she also has deep ties to the industries she could oversee as the county's chief environmental watchdog. Her background in regulatory compliance, both as a consultant and employee of private industries, contrasts to other finalists, all who have significant experience working in the public sector on environmental regulation.
The other candidates are EPC general counsel Rick Tschantz, Florida Department of Environmental Protection southwest district director Mary Yeargan and Port Everglades environmental projects director Robert Musser. On Thursday, the EPC will interview all four and pick a replacement for longtime EPC executive director Richard Garrity, who retires June 30.
Dougherty is also less than a year removed from a campaign in which she accepted $33,000 from individuals who listed development or real estate positions as their occupation, not including the thousands of dollars in donations from lawyers and engineers who work for developers.
Were she to get the job, she could be in a position where she would be regulating the individuals and businesses who were recent donors and clients and her past employers.
"I can assure you, I'll do anything to protect the environment and it doesn't matter who comes before the agency, they will be treated fairly," Dougherty said. "There will be no special preference."
"That would be a case of the fox guarding the henhouse," said former Commissioner Jan Platt, who sat on the candidate screening committee.
Dougherty was added to the list of finalists in part because of her background in business.
But outside efforts to make her a finalist seemed to hit a wall when the screening committee didn't include her among their recommendations for the post on April 30. Dougherty was ranked fifth of seven semifinalists.
The situation changed with the withdrawal of one of the committee's top three choices, EPC wetlands director Scott Emery. The County Commission voted 4-3 on May 6 to include Dougherty with the committee's two favorites, Tschantz and Yeargan. Musser, who initially tied with Emery in the selection committee vote, was added to mix as well, without controversy.
Commissioner Victor Crist said Dougherty's private sector experience helped balance the makeup of the candidates, but Commissioner Les Miller said her inclusion was a slight to the selection committee.
That's when Higginbotham described the intense lobbying.
According to text messages to Higginbotham acquired by the Times in a public records request, one consistent lobbying effort came from Hung Mai, a well-connected engineer and real estate consultant.
On March 12, Mai asked Higginbotham if he needed to be on the EPC selection committee to "counter-balance other members."
On April 20, Mai asked Higginbotham if he would meet with real estate attorney Vin Marchetti, Republican activist Sam Rashid and real estate investor Andy Scaglione. Higginbotham offered a conference call. The meeting didn't happen.
When the selection committee met on April 30, Mai stopped by the room briefly and later texted Higginbotham: "Sorry I had to leave I didn't want to show others you and I close."
On May 6, after Higginbotham voiced his concerns publicly about the lobbying, Mai texted again. "I saw your comment and just wondering if I did anything inappropriate resulting such comment."
Commissioners Miller and Kevin Beckner also said they were lobbied for Dougherty, as did former Commissioner Tom Scott, who sat on the screening committee.
Beckner said he's fielded calls from people who support Tschantz as well.
Garrity wrote letters of recommendation for Tschantz and Emery, and has made it known he hoped an in-house candidate got the job.
Dougherty said her private sector experience has afforded her the opportunity to understand almost every environmental regulatory process in the county, from wetlands to air pollution.
Dougherty's company, Sage Eco Solutions, provides environmental consulting for companies including Cemex, US Agri Chemicals and International Ship Repair and Marine Services. It also handles the recycling of yard waste for Clearwater.
She worked in government relations for Westshore Development Group from 2004 to 2005 and fertilizer manufacturer CF Industries from 1997 to 2004.
Dougherty told the search committee on April 30 that she would divest herself from all of her business interests if named executive director.
"Who best to help find solutions than somebody who understands intimately the regulations and has done a lot of the technical work?" Dougherty said. "I do believe there is value in private sector working with public sector."
Higginbotham and Commissioner Stacy White said they are not bothered by Dougherty's resume nor the donations to her campaign from businesses that could come before the EPC.
"By the same token, county commissioners are asked to make policy decisions and be the watchdogs of people that may have contributed to their campaigns," White said. "You've got a trust that a professional can draw a distinction."
But Beckner said, "That will be weighing on my mind."