TAMPA — News broke this week that a lucrative preliminary selection for a prime parcel in Tampa had family ties to Mayor Jane Castor.
Castor’s nephew, Alex Castor, works for Related, the Miami-based firm that won the initial nod to develop the 18-acres near Armature Works and the Hillsborough River in West Tampa.
And her partner, Ana Cruz, works as a lobbyist for Ballard Partners, a powerful national firm with offices in Tampa.
Ballard was working for Related during the request-for-proposal process that ended in March.
Todd Josko, a Ballard partner, said Wednesday he was hired by Related to help prepare the developers for their presentation before the selection committee in March. He declined to disclose the amount of money that Ballard was paid, but said the contract has since expired.
Josko was succinct when asked if the involvement of Castor’s partner’s firm was an optics problem for the first-term mayor.
“There was zero conflict,” Josko said. “Ana is not involved whatsoever.”
Cruz echoed that sentiment.
“What matters here is that we all play by the rules and do the right thing. Jane and I agreed when she decided to run for mayor that I wouldn’t profit from any business that Ballard does before the city. This has and will continue to be the case,” Cruz texted Wednesday.
Jane Castor told the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday that Ballard’s participation in the process was above board and she said it didn’t have any impact on Related’s preliminary selection out of six finalists.
Another firm, Tampa-based InVictus, has since filed a protest of the city’s decision.
And Castor said her nephew had worked for Related since 2019, being recruited by his “college buddy” Peter Van Warner to the firm. Related didn’t need to file a disclosure on their application about Alex Castor, she said, because “it’s not required.”
On Tuesday, Van Warner told a Times reporter that he would have to check if Alex Castor worked for Related before declining comment and hanging up the phone.
“Everybody was very transparent,” the mayor said. “Related is one of the most successful firms in Florida, if not the country. I don’t think they need to hire my nephew to sell themselves.”
As for Cruz, Jane Castor echoed what Cruz told the newspaper: Their agreement that Cruz not profit from city business stands and will continue to do so.
For his part, Josko said Ana Cruz is part of every contract that Ballard has involving the city — but only to make clear in writing that she won’t benefit from or participate in any city work.
Asked if the proposal process should be started again because of the appearance of impropriety, the mayor said no.
To do so would taint the entire process, she said.
“We have to see this process through,” Castor said.
The city and Related still have to negotiate a contract and agree on a development deal if the appeal by InVictus fails.
Josko said he didn’t register as a lobbyist with the city during the Rome Yard RFP because he only communicated via email with Rob Rosner, the city’s economic opportunity director, about logistics and coronavirus-related details. “There was no need,” Josko said.
Baseball had been proposed at the Rome Yard site when a previous failed bidding process took place before former mayor Bob Buckhorn pulled the plug in 2019. This time around, baseball hasn’t been part of the discussion, Jane Castor said.
And the mayor said she has no interest in the Tampa Bay Rays building a ballpark on the site, which is large enough in acreage to accommodate a stadium.
“A baseball stadium would take away so many elements that neighborhood needs to thrive,” said Castor, referring to the West Tampa area that has seen a spurt of recent development but once included public housing and still has pockets of poverty.
The Rays have asked Castor for a meeting soon to discuss restarting ballpark talks in Tampa, she told the Times.
Josko’s involvement in the deal has ignited the political gossip about Ballard’s influence. Not to mention, Related, which gave $10,000 to Castor during her mayoral campaign.
But Josko said his involvement was limited to communications and strategy and doesn’t even know if Ballard will be involved moving forward.
Josko said he couldn’t remember how he ended up attending Castor’s March news conference announcing Related’s selection, but thought that Related officials had probably informally invited him.
Related referred the Times to a public relations firm Wednesday, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.