TAMPA — The month before the Related Group was named as the city’s choice for a lucrative contract to develop a prime West River property, the mayor’s partner, Ana Cruz, toured Tampa with the Miami firm’s founder.
Later, Cruz and Jorge Pérez traveled to the burgeoning West River development near the Hillsborough River. Pérez, the head of the Related Group, then got out for a tour organized by Mayor Jane Castor’s nephew, Alex Castor.
Invited to that same tour? Joe Robinson, the West Tampa activist and consulting engineer whose actions during the March bid selection process led to a formal protest against the city’s preliminary award of the Rome Yard, an 18-acre tract adjacent to the West River project.
The Feb. 9 excursion taken by Cruz, a lobbyist for Ballard Partners, and Pérez, Related’s founder, was confirmed by Cruz and a Related spokesperson Tuesday.
Ballard was hired to help prepare Related for its selection committee presentation. It is unclear when Related signed its contract with Ballard and when that contract expired. A Ballard spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry on the contract Tuesday.
The mayor has said her nephew doesn’t stand to profit if the city ultimately awards Related the right to develop Rome Yard.
The city and the Tampa Housing Authority have referred in public documents and comments to West River and the Rome Yard as being a unified project. To that end, the community’s master plan incorporates both the West River project, being developed by Related, and the city-owned Rome Yard, now a hot button of controversy in Florida’s third-largest city.
After lunching and taking a chartered transport van to Seminole Heights that day in February, Cruz and Pérez ended up at the West River development.
There, Cruz says, Pérez took a walking tour of his latest Tampa project.
She stayed in the van, she said, to travel back to her car at the Tampa Museum of Art.
They didn’t discuss the Rome Yard bid or any other city business in their hours together, Cruz said. Related’s spokesperson confirmed her account.
During Castor’s 2019 mayoral run, she and Cruz had promised that their lobbyist-elected official relationship would never stray into improper waters.
“I’ve never crossed that line and never will,” said Cruz, who is barred by an internal Ballard policy from profiting off of city lobbying work.
But Cruz did acknowledge how it appeared: Cruz, the mayor’s longtime partner, spending so much time with the head of the company weeks before his firm eventually won city approval to proceed with the Rome Yard development.
“The optics aren’t good, I get that,” Cruz said. “But the optics and the truth are very, very far part.”
Tampa Housing Authority Director Leroy Moore met Pérez and other Related officials at the West River tour that day. He confirmed that Cruz wasn’t there. Moore said he didn’t see if anyone else was in the van.
The Housing Authority is Related’s partner on the Rome Yard bid. And the housing agency also has a longstanding relationship with Robinson. In February the housing authority renewed a consulting contact with Robinson worth up to $75,000.
Less than a month later, Robinson, who served on the Rome Yard selection committee, led the effort to throw out minority and women outreach scores, which tipped the scales in favor of Related, according to a formal protest document filed by another developer, Tampa-based Invictus, LLP.
Robinson, who didn’t return a request for comment, didn’t attend the Feb. 9 tour, Moore said.
Moore said he doesn’t understand the controversy around Robinson, his housing authority contract and his actions on the selection committee.
“That’s not for us to determine. I don’t personally see how it is. I’m not part of the city and not part of the selection process. I don’t know what would constitute a conflict, personally,” Moore said.
Robinson has done consulting work as an engineer for nearly a decade, Moore said.
“We’ve had contracts with Joe Robinson going back to 2012 on Encore dealing with mechanical systems evaluating chiller functions. The contract in February of this year was for the same thing. It doesn’t have anything to do with Related or with West River; it deals solely with the contracts at Encore. It’s very limited work and very sporadic,” Moore said.
Housing authority records show $9,000 was paid to Robinson in 2014 and 2015. Authority officials said last week they couldn’t locate any invoices paid to Robinson since he signed his latest contract in February.
As for what she describes as her coincidental involvement in the day’s events, Cruz said it was just two art lovers sharing a common passion.
They (Related) do a lot here. We’re trying to grow our art scene,” said Cruz, who described Pérez as a noted art collector. Cruz is also an art lover and has taken a role in redecorating the mayor’s office with paintings.
Although Cruz’s Ballard partner, Todd Josko, was hired to prepare Related for its presentation before the city’s selection committee, Cruz said her time with Pérez had nothing to do with the Rome Yard bid.
“I’ve never been been on that property. I would never risk my career or Jane’s career,” Cruz said.
Related also released the following statement Tuesday from Related Urban Development Group’s president Albert Milo Jr.: .
“Related Urban Development submitted a comprehensive and deliberate proposal in response to the RFP for the development of Rome Yard. We underwent a rigorous RFP vetting process, filing all required disclosures, and were awarded the project based on the superior quality of our submission coupled with our decades of experience successfully developing affordable housing across the country. Under our proposal, the city will retain ownership of this valuable property, with no taxpayer contributions to the project. Our competitor proposed using taxpayer money to purchase the property and to fund the infrastructure costs. In contrast, Related Urban Development also offered nearly double the commitment to contracting a local workforce and twice the commitment to employ minority and small businesses. We have successfully developed many large-scale public/private master-planned developments, including the 44-acre West River development adjacent to the Rome Yard site. We are anxious to begin this project and deliver a superior, transformative development for the Tampa community. We respect the appeal process and therefore refrain from further comment.”