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Hillsborough sheriff to investigate Go Hillsborough contract

TAMPA — Hoping to quickly restore trust in Go Hillsborough, County Administrator Mike Merrill called for Sheriff David Gee on Monday to investigate the public transportation initiative.

Merrill hopes a sheriff's investigation will clear up any questions about the $1.35 million contract awarded to engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to gauge public support for a proposed sales tax that would fund Hillsborough's future transportation needs.

In the meantime, Merrill ordered Parsons Brinckerhoff and its subcontractors to halt work on Go Hillsborough's public outreach meetings until the sheriff's inquiry is complete.

Merrill's request was made days after WTSP 10News questioned how the multinational firm was awarded the deal. A previous review by the county auditor said the contract was procured legally.

Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times he remains convinced the county's contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff is aboveboard. Still, in a letter to the sheriff, Merrill said that "allegations in the media have challenged the integrity of the process."

"To ensure continued public engagement, these allegations must be thorough and independently investigated to preserve trust in local government," he wrote.

Gee accepted Merrill's request. A time frame for the investigation was not available Monday, but Merrill said he was assured by the sheriff that it would be "thorough, complete, but urgent as well."

Merrill said he chose the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office because it has conducted similar investigations in the past — inquiries he said he could not publicly divulge.

Typically, law enforcement conducts investigations and then prosecutors decide whether to file charges. Merrill said the sheriff's findings would be sent to the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office.

In a 2009 case, a county official asked state investigators to weigh in on a local matter. When Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner asked questions about raises then-county administrator Pat Bean had given herself and others, he asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to intervene.

While Parsons Brinckerhoff will suspend its work on Go Hillsborough, county staff will continue to hold public meetings already scheduled, including two slated for today. The company is scheduled to prepare a report for the county in November, but it's unclear if the delay will affect that time frame.

How Parsons Brinckerhoff came to work on Go Hillsborough is complicated. Merrill, the county attorney and the county internal auditor have all said that the contract was legally awarded to Parsons Brinckerhoff. But opponents of Go Hillsborough contend it skirted open government rules.

Florida law, specifically the Competitive Consultants Negotiations Act, allows for municipalities to create a short list of companies that can provide engineering, architecture, surveying and mapping services as needed. As long as the work pertains to those four areas, and does not involve design or construction and stays below a certain cost threshold, the county does not need to solicit bids every time it needs help from a consultant.

To get on that short list, however, a company must go through a competitive bid process. In 2012, Parsons Brinckerhoff was one of 10 companies selected out of 53 to provide engineering services to the county.

The Hillsborough County Policy Leadership Group voted in August 2014 to hire a private sector company with transportation experience to conduct a study on the county's transportation needs. In September 2014, public works staff recommended Parsons Brinckerhoff — which had already been preapproved — to provide those services.

The WTSP story questioned whether Parsons Brinckerhoff was chosen because it hired Beth Leytham, a politically connected Tampa public relations consultant, as a subcontractor for the project. Leytham will be paid $187,000 for her work on Go Hillsborough.

"I welcome it," Leytham told the Times about the sheriff's investigation. "There's nothing there," she said. "Look at it. Scrutinize it. Look at every piece of documentation. I look forward to putting a fork in it and having it be done."

The recent negative attention for Go Hillsborough, however, has clouded the initiative. If the County Commission approves the referendum, it would go on the 2016 ballot. Voters will be asked if they approve of a sales tax increase of an amount yet to be determined for transportation improvements.

Critics of the sales tax hike have seized on the story to mobilize opposition. But Commissioner Ken Hagan, whose friendship with Leytham was singled out by WTSP, said detractors won't derail Go Hillsborough before it gets on the ballot.

"An independent review," Hagan said, "will help to put these bogus claims to rest."

But Commissioner Sandy Murman wasn't as confident in the referendum's future.

"I don't think any of us wanted to get into this process for almost two years and have it come to this," Murman said. "So we have to get it back on track quick."

Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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