When state Rep. Larry Ahern was tabbed earlier this year to craft a bill to reform the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, he said publicly there was no need to disband the agency.
But privately, the Seminole Republican held a much different view.
In a Feb. 1 email sent from his private account, Ahern ripped the board for being useless.
"... If the intent was to prevent unlicensed activity, it's not very effective or efficient," the legislator wrote to a contractor. "Even the amount of unpaid/uncollected fines is staggering ... nothing is usually done to make the consumer whole again after the damage is done."
Now Ahern is running for the Pinellas County Commission, and his email raises some questions:
Why did the legislator propose a law that belied his private stance?
What other public business has he conducted out of public view, using private email?
• • •
The Tampa Bay Times discovered Ahern's email when requesting records about the licensing agency from the city of Pinellas Park. In late June, the Times asked Ahern to turn over all emails from his public and private accounts dealing with the licensing agency under Florida's public records law.
The Florida House of Representatives provided his emails — but omitted the Feb. 1 private email. State officials said those were the records turned over by Ahern's office.
First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen, an expert on the state's public records law, called it a "problem" when elected officials do official business with their private email accounts.
"It doesn't look good when there's a damning record not turned over," Petersen said. "This is an ongoing problem when officials use private accounts. We need to hold them accountable."
Public records law doesn't just apply to public email accounts — it applies to all email used to conduct official business. Gov. Rick Scott's administration got caught in 2013 using private Gmail accounts. Taxpayers ended up spending $700,000 to settle a public records lawsuit over the matter.
The Times asked Ahern why that email was omitted. In response, Florida House General Counsel Adam Tanenbaum sent the omitted email and a statement on July 14, saying that taxpayers can "rest assured that Rep. Ahern complied fully" with the record request.
The Feb. 1 email "did not come up in a prior search," Tanenbaum said, and was left out by mistake.
When the Times asked Ahern why he failed to turn over the email, the legislator declined to comment.
• • •
The licensing board was established by the Legislature in 1973 to license and discipline contractors in Pinellas County. It is the only agency of its kind in the state, an independent entity that does not report to anyone, neither county nor state officials.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Earlier this year, a series of Tampa Bay Times reports raised questions about whether the board treats consumers and contractors fairly, especially under the tenure of former executive director Rodney Fischer, who retired on Jan. 31.
TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD
Local officials started scrutinizing the board. County commissioners wanted to take control of the agency, but legislators resisted.
Instead, state Sen. Jack Latvala, the powerful Clearwater Republican now running for governor, asked Ahern to draft a bill to fix the agency. Ahern focused on a specific problem: allegations Fischer had rigged the nominating process to get his picks appointed to the governing board.
One of the fixes in Ahern's bill: allow the United Pool and Spa Association or Alliance of Florida Contractors to nominate a contractor to the board. During all this, Ahern wrote the Feb. 1 email in response to a contractor complaining about the licensing board. The contractor had emailed Ahern's private account.
"I guess more oversight may help," Ahern wrote back, "I'd like to see it become a criminal offense to work without a license in Pinellas County and get law enforcement involved in curbing unlicensed activity."
Latvala then declared in February that it was too late to submit a bill for the legislative session, which was about to start. Reform would have to wait until 2018.
But Ahern's bill was still alive in March. He also revealed then that Fischer, who was accused of rigging the nominating process, helped shape the legislation to fix the problem. Ahern said the bill would go nowhere.
"I suspect at this point, nothing will happen with the bill," he told the Times in March. "We're not going to pass it."
Then in April, Ahern's bill moved forward. Nothing ever became of that legislation.
Ahern now blames the confusion about his bill on Latvala.
"This story is not about me," Ahern wrote in a statement. "I was following the direction of the chairman Sen. Latvala. This is all by his direction, not mine."
The Times pointed out to Ahern that he was the one who submitted the legislation and discussed the agency in a private email –– not Latvala.
"Everything I discussed with anybody by email or otherwise was based on my instructions from Senator Latvala as to his insistence on keeping the PCCLB intact," Ahern's statement said. "If I had my way it might have been different ... This is my last words on the subject."
Ahern would not respond to further questions about the email.
Latvala said he "did not recall" talking to Ahern about the legislation. But Latvala said he grew suspicious that Ahern, a pool contractor, drafted a bill to appoint a pool contractor to oversee the licensing agency.
"When he presented his work product I did note that he proposed adding a swimming pool contractor to the board," Latvala said in a statement. "And (it) raised my eyebrows.
"His work product was his own.".
• • •
Ahern's email was also wrong about this point: Unlicensed contracting is already illegal in Pinellas. The first offense is a misdemeanor and the second is a felony.
Ahern has two opponents running against him in the 2018 primary for county commission. Both criticized his failure to turn over his private email.
Barb Haselden, a St. Petersburg resident who led the No Tax for Tracks campaign against the 2014 transit referendum, said Ahern was listening to the wrong people.
"He was given the power to have his way when he was elected by the people who voted for him," Haselden said. "Rep. Ahern's instructions should come from the people in his district. I will lead."
Another Republican lawmaker running against Ahern is Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena. She said public officials must obey public records law.
"I stand strong on transparency," she said. "When I get a public records request I always do my best to find everything requested."
Correction: This story was updated to reflect that state Rep. Larry Ahern proposed a bill earlier this year that would have allowed two associations to nominate a contractor to the governing board of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. The bill would not have appointed a pool contractor to the board.
Also, the legislation was still active in March, and Ahern did not re-submit the bill. An earlier version was incorrect on those points.
Contact Mark Puente at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente