TAMPA — Last year, two doctors pitched an unusual project to Hillsborough County officials.
Drs. Gogi and Renuka Ramappa, husband and wife, wanted to build 20 apartments next to single-family homes and trailers on a quiet street in Carrollwood.
It looked dead on arrival.
A team of planners said the project didn't meet guidelines. Neighbors complained about traffic and flooding. An appointed board that says yes to nine of every 10 projects said no to this one.
But the Hillsborough County Commission has the final call. And behind the scenes, money changed hands.
In the days before and after a critical vote, the Ramappas, their companies, their lobbyist, their son and three of their associates donated a total of $11,200 to the campaigns of three sitting commissioners. Gogi Ramappa also gave $2,000 to the Republican Executive Committee.
Between March 17 and May 26, the group sent 16 separate checks to the campaigns of Commissioners Les Miller, Sandy Murman and Kevin Beckner. On May 14, they and other commissioners gave the doctors' apartments unanimous approval.
The three board members who received donations said the checks had nothing to do with their votes. They each saw the apartments as a good fit for the neighborhood. They noted that four other commissioners who did not receive money also voted yes.
"It had nothing to do with my vote," said Beckner.
"I didn't even know who the checks were from," said Murman.
"It's not illegal," said Miller.
The outcome was certainly unusual. Not since 2008 have commissioners approved a project after both staff and the planning board said no.
Neighbor Terry Hanson called the donations "shady." A leading expert on campaign finance laws, Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen, says such transactions "are the reason Americans are disenfranchised from and disenchanted with the way government operates."
To better understand what happened in this case, the Tampa Bay Times analyzed two years of local campaign finance records and examined lobbying sign-in sheets, calendars, emails and text messages.
The Times found:
• It is easy for donors to get around a Florida law that limits how much someone can give to a single candidate. The Ramappas avoided the $1,000 cap by giving money in their names and the names of two companies they manage.
• Contributors can be obscured by bogus addresses and descriptions, making it harder to understand who is giving money to whom. Donald Weber, the husband of the Ramappas' office manager, is listed as giving $500 but told the Times he never wrote a check and did not know about the donation. Weber is listed on campaign reports as a "doctor" but he said he is a carpenter with health issues.
• The lobbying rules in Hillsborough County are so flimsy that when the Ramappas' representative met privately with commissioners, he left important information off public forms, including the date of a visit or what they discussed. Todd Pressman, the lobbyist, hand-delivered some of the Ramappas' checks and is listed as a member of Murman's re-election campaign.
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The largest bundle of donations happened three days before the commission voted, when five checks totaling $3,500 were given to Murman. During the subsequent hearing, Murman was so effusive she chimed in right after Pressman's pitch and told him: "Great presentation. I agree with you."
• • •
The apartments are supposed to be built across the street from the largest Hindu temple in Tampa Bay.
About two decades ago, local Hindus began building the ornate facility and transforming the neighborhood around it. Today, there is an Indian cafe, an Indian cultural center and a group of homes and trailers rented by Indians. Sixteen of the 25 lots to the south and the west are now owned by the temple board or those associated with the facility.
The Ramappas are among them. The couple is listed as "patron trustees" on the temple's official website.
About 15 years ago, the physicians — he is a pediatrician, she an obstetrician and gynecologist — began purchasing land in the neighborhood. The couple and a company they control, Ramappa Limited Family Partnership, now owns four lots on the corner of Lynn and Williams roads.
Their properties have not been the tidiest on the block.
In 2004 and 2008, county code enforcement workers cited the owners for hazardous conditions, electrical issues and using a mobile home as a commercial kitchen.
Code enforcement workers have not cited the property since, but the units remain in poor shape. The roof of one building is caved in. Recently, there was trash in the yard, broken ceramics by a shed and drums labeled "cooking oil" by the fence.
None of the three commissioners knew about the past code enforcement complaints or the condition of the property today. Miller contended that new apartments should improve the aesthetics of the property.
But if this is how the Ramappas have managed a handful of units for the past decade, what will happen when there's 20 apartments and more than 50 residents, wonders Hanson, who lives next door.
"I'm worried about quality of life," Hanson said.
When the Ramappas first announced the apartments, neighbors and temple patrons pushed back.
Though the complex is called "Hindu Village," leaders from the temple hired a lobbyist to fight it. At a public hearing, Vijay Dasika wondered how the small roads would support the new traffic. Others worried the Ramappas could flip the property after the project was approved.
"Tomorrow this land is sold to someone else," Dr. Keshavu Babu speculated.
Dennis Logering lives a few doors down and said his property floods during heavy rains. Would this new development make it worse?
The temple's lobbyist, Mark Bentley, argued that approving apartments in this suburban neighborhood would open the door to other, larger developments in the future.
"This would obviously forever dismantle and alter the character of the area," he said.
• • •
When someone wants to develop land in a way that doesn't meet guidelines, the developer must seek the blessing of the Hillsborough City-County Planning Commission.
The group looks at things like the height of a building, how many units can fit on an acre or what kind of other businesses and homes are in the community.
The Planning Commission is generally pro-business and pro-growth. Its 10 members include a developer, a banker, a utility executive and at least two architects. This group reviews about 20 projects a year and has ruled in favor of 87 percent of developments since 2013.
But when it came to the Ramappas' apartments, officials balked.
In a staff report, Pedro Parra, a planner with 30 years of experience, questioned the jump in density — from four units per acre to 12 — and called it an "intrusion" that would "create compatibility concerns."
On March 9, the Planning Commission made its ruling.
The board unanimously voted that the project was inconsistent with the county's comprehensive plan. One of the planning commissioners called it a "no-no." But this decision was only a recommendation.
Hillsborough County commissioners are responsible for the final verdict.
To help the project pass muster, the Ramappas hired one of Tampa Bay's best known lobbyists. Todd Pressman has been in the business for two decades. He regularly shows up as an adviser to election campaigns and has taken on controversial projects in the past.
To pitch the Ramappas' apartments — geared toward Indians who wanted to live closer to the temple — Pressman called the plan "live, work, pray."
This, of course, is a riff on the development mantra du jour — live, work, play — that urbanizes neighborhoods in a way that keeps people close to their home, their job and local businesses.
So while he built a slide show presentation to unveil at a public hearing in May, Pressman was also working backdoor channels.
Lobbying records show him meeting with all seven county commissioners before the critical meeting. On a form that is supposed to tell the public what a lobbyist and government official are talking about, Pressman sometimes left the space blank. Once, he simply wrote: "Amendment."
In addition to the closed door meetings, Pressman and his clients started sending money to Miller, Murman and Beckner — the only three commissioners facing an election in 2016. The checks all came after the Planning Commission rejected the apartments.
The first was on March 17, when Miller received $500 from Pressman's firm, followed by $2,000 from the Ramappas and another $1,000 from their son, Arun, on March 26. Arun Ramappa is a Boston physician but his donation listed his address as his father's Pasco County office.
On May 5, Miller received an additional $500 from Renuka Ramappa, which brought her total this campaign cycle to $1,500. State law limits contributions to $1,000.
The same day, Miller received $500 from Donald Weber, the husband of the Ramappas' office manager. Weber, who is in bad health but spoke to reporters at his home in Spring Hill, said he is not politically inclined and has not donated in the past. He has no business or property in Hillsborough County. He said his wife, Laura, may have given the money in his name "because she handles all the finances." She did not respond to multiple phone calls and an email.
Laura Weber later made a $500 donation of her own to Murman on May 11. This was part of the largest day of contributions for any of the candidates. Murman said Pressman gave her checks but she never looked to see who they were from. Among the donors that day: $1,000 from Gogi and the Ramappa Family Limited Partnership, which owns the land where the apartments are to be built; $500 from a company controlled by the Ramappas, Zephyrhills Medical Arts; and $500 from Pressman's firm.
On May 13, Miller received $200 from Nithyandandaswamy Kora, who is the president of a nonprofit that counts Renuka Ramappa as a board member and is run out of her office, according to Florida business records. Kora recalled the contribution but in a brief conversation with the Times could not remember what compelled him to donate to Miller.
By the time the project went before the board, opponents sensed something had changed.
"My jaw dropped open," said Hanson, the next-door neighbor. "We were in awe of how quickly it was approved. We thought for sure it was going down."
Reached at his Hudson office Monday, Gogi Ramappa would not speak with reporters about the project or the donations.
"Write what you're going to write," he said. "I don't have a problem."
• • •
Pressman says money had nothing to do with it.
He said the Planning Commission is sometimes wrong. He called the apartments a good fit for a growing Hindu community. He noted that the Ramappas made architectural changes that the county required.
When presented a timeline of all the donations, Pressman shrugged it off.
"The timeline is the timeline," he said.
The three commissioners who received money said largely the same things.
Murman acknowledged receiving checks from Pressman at a fundraiser three days before a critical vote, but said she never met the Ramappas.
"I think people support me because I'm a good commissioner and I do good work for my constituents," she said. "Not because I make decisions one way or another. The timing on it just happens to be coincidental."
At first, Beckner denied that he received donations before casting a vote on the project. In the past, Beckner has made a point of telling voters that he doesn't take money from people with business before the county. He argued that the donations came after the critical May 14 hearing.
But he received $500 from Pressman's lobbying firm on April 29 — two weeks before the May 14 vote — and then $2,500 from Gogi Ramappa and two of the family's companies on May 26.
The final vote for zoning came in September.
Beckner said he didn't know that vote was forthcoming, even though that's the typical next step in the process. Instead, Beckner says that Gogi Ramappa told him he "watched me on the board and he was impressed with my leadership."
"That's the one thing we talked about and he was excited about my potential career in politics," Beckner said.
Miller was more blunt during his conversation with the Times. He said again and again that the donations were not illegal and argued that the reason he approved the apartments was to keep the Hindu community together.
"The law is what governs what you can do," Miller said. "And we did it within the law."
Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at firstname.lastname@example.org and Anthony Cormier at email@example.com.