Rep. Amber Mariano, Port Richey officials trade criminal conduct allegations

The dispute surfaces amid a legislative push to revoke the city’s charter and give control to Pasco County.
Port Richey City Hall  [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
Port Richey City Hall [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Oct. 4, 2019

PORT RICHEY — City of Port Richey administrators and state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, are trading accusations of criminal conduct amid the legislator’s push to dissolve the city.

On Friday, City Manager Vince Lupo and City Attorney James Mathieu asked the state to charge Mariano with filing a false police report to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. She told investigators in May that she suspected the city had inappropriately refinanced a $3 million bond and had misspent redevelopment money.

The city’s complaint to the state said Mariano "provided false information to the FDLE and (was) done for political and wrongful purposes.''

Specifically, city officials point to a recording of investigators’ May 28 interview with Mariano.

"The only reason that they’re looking at this is because they (the state) is trying to do a local bill to dissolve the city of Port Richey and have Pasco County take over the services of the city,'' she said, according to a summary of the interview provided to Port Richey by the state.

"Amber Mariano provided no evidence real or circumstantial that the city of Port Richey committed any crime, nor had any reasonable basis to so conclude,'' said the city’s complaint to FDLE, suggesting her motivation was to promote an agenda for her father, Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano.

Rep. Mariano told investigators that her father was not involved in her complaint.

On Friday, she called the city’s complaint "absolute nonsense'' and "another example of the failed leadership and poor judgment of city officials.'' The complaint, she said, is retaliation for her legislative proposal to disband the city.

Last week, Rep. Mariano and Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, announced they would file legislation in the next session to revoke Port Richey’s charter and turn its governance over to Pasco County. Rep. Mariano cited the city’s recent scandals and its "debt creation'' and criticized the city’s stewardship of its redevelopment money.

The scandals are well documented. Then-Mayor Dale Massad was arrested in February on a charge of practicing medicine without a license and multiple counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer after he was accused of firing two shots at Pasco County Sheriff’s deputies executing a search warrant. Later, both Massad and his successor, then-Acting Mayor Terrence Rowe, were accused of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. A jury convicted Massad on those latter charges. The case against Rowe is pending. Both resigned their public offices.

During her May interview with state officers, Rep. Mariano said she couldn’t recall the name of the city manager, but said the bond issue repayments increased costs to the city by $184,000 annually through 2021 and then $900,000 for eight consecutive years, with a final payment of $700,000.

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City documents, however, show the annual interest payments range from a high of $94,195 in 2017 to $5,100 in 2035. The 20-year interest total is $918,520 on a principal of just over $3 million.

The payments started after the city began refinancing $3 million in bonds for utility improvements and a fire truck in 2016 through the Florida League of Cities. Lupo said the refinancing will allow the city to save more than $300,000 in interest by the time the last bond is retired in 2035.

Meanwhile, the Community Redevelopment Agency — made up of City Council members acting under a separate authority — is financed with taxes from increased property values and is tasked with combating blight. Rep. Mariano complained that the money was used improperly on employee salaries.

Redevelopment Agency expenditures "have been audited and (are) in compliance with all state laws,'' Lupo said in a released statement. In an interview Thursday, Lupo said the city has curbed its reliance on redevelopment money to cover payroll.

The city’s release said Mariano’s assertions were dismissed by the FDLE. Investigators could not be reached Friday to confirm the case’s status.

The bill to dissolve Port Richey will be heard during Pasco’s legislative delegation meeting on Oct. 11.