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Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano target of federal investigation

Mariano and two witnesses say they have spoken to federal investigators.

The FBI and IRS are investigating Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano’s ties to the disbursement of a $600,000 anonymous donation intended to help outfit a county-owned park, and his later purchase of vacant Gulf-front property earmarked for a condominium development.

Jamie Maloney, the former head of Student Survival Inc., the defunct charity that distributed the donation, said he was interviewed Friday by agents from the two federal agencies. He said their questions focused on Mariano.

Thomas Girouard, one of the investors in the proposed condominium development, said he was interviewed by an FBI agent this week and that the questions concerned the Gulf-front property purchase.

”I told them I’ve known Jack Mariano for several years. He has helped me with issues before the county board in his official capacity. He never asked for anything in return,” Girouard said. “There has always been a very professional relationship. We invested in an investment but there was never any use of his political clout.”

A federal grand jury subpoena obtained by the Tampa Bay Times requests all “documents and information” relating to any business, real estate, commercial or financial dealings involving Mariano, SunWest Park and the waterfront property going back to 2015. It says the grand jury will convene in Tampa on Dec. 10.

Mariano himself issued a statement Friday saying he was interviewed by FBI agents, but did not say what they asked him about.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office began investigating the circumstances surrounding the six-figure donation more than two years ago amid criticism that the entire contribution was not used for its intended use: to pay for improvements at the county-owned SunWest Park in Hudson.

The investigation remains open but the FBI is now the lead agency, said sheriff’s assistant executive director Chase Daniels in an email sent Friday to the Times.

FBI spokeswoman Andrea Aprea of the Tampa office said the agency “does not confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation, nor do we release information pertaining to interviews.”

Mariano was first elected to the commission in 2004 and is the father of State Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson. She and her father were both re-elected earlier this month, as Jack Mariano won his fifth, four-year term. He issued this statement Friday through his attorney John Lauro:

“This week I became aware that the government is conducting an investigation. I am unaware of the source of any complaint or the scope of the investigation. I understand that several people have been interviewed about property developments in the county. I too was interviewed by the FBI and cooperated fully. I have conducted my duties lawfully and appropriately and in the best interests of the people of Pasco County.”

Mariano announced during a September 2015 commission meeting that a benefactor who wished to remain anonymous wanted to donate $600,000 for the park. It was supposed to pay for additional parking, a second restroom and a splash pad for children.

Related: Anonymous donation could complete SunWest Park

Some of the work got done, but the county eventually intervened to complete the restrooms. The splash pad didn’t get built.

The county had earlier estimated that the improvements would cost $1.45 million, but Gary Grubbs, owner of the adjoining property, said he would match the contribution with in-kind donations to complete the park additions.

In 2015, Mariano described the benefactor as a retiree who has lived in Pasco County for about 20 years. He said the man had followed the park’s development, asked for a tour and volunteered financial assistance. The donation was funneled through Students Survival Inc., a nonprofit group working to bolster the community and to assist low-income Hudson-area children with after-school programs and sports activities.

In a prior interview with the Times, Mariano was critical of Maloney’s handling of the donation.

But Maloney on Friday defended himself: “Everything related to SunWest we did at the direction of Jack.”

However, Students Survival spent some of the money in a project allowing a group of teens and young adults to build a race car capable of competing at the Daytona International Speedway. Maloney said the donation came with no specific earmark to the park and the race car was intended to become a perpetual fund-raising source to finance the charity’s activities. Students Survival shut down in 2018.

Grubbs on Friday also criticized Maloney’s oversight of the money.

“I never could get an accounting,’' said Grubbs, who has had his own clashes with the IRS over allegations of unpaid taxes.

Related: Pasco Commissioner Mariano buys vacant Gulf-front land

In March 2018, Mariano paid $900,000 in a cash deal for an undeveloped 8.37-acre parcel fronting the Gulf of Mexico. The Hudson parcel adjoins the Gulf Islands Beach and Tennis Resort on Sea Ranch Drive and is zoned for a multi-family high-rise.

Under the arrangement, Mariano said he put up the $45,000 down payment and retained 51 percent ownership of the newly formed company. Ownership of the land transferred to the company, Sunset Phase 4 LLC, in March of this year.

Mariano said then the land would be developed as a condominium complex of a five-story building, containing up to 88 units, atop a two-story parking deck.

The initial investors were:: Rod Kielty of R.J. Kielty Plumbing; physician Krishna Ravi; William Woodard, president of Coastal Aluminum; engineer Elie Araj, president of Applied Sciences Consulting, and Girouard.

State records indicate Araj is no longer a corporate officer of Sunset Phase 4. One of the replacements is Mariano’s father, John V. Mariano Sr., records show. The company’s status is listed as inactive, according to state records, for failure to file an annual report in 2020.

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