Tampa airport expansion trapped in Tallahassee crossfire

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, wants an audit of Tampa International Airport's $1 billion expansion project. Poll. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, wants an audit of Tampa International Airport's $1 billion expansion project. Poll. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Apr. 18, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — The biggest public works project in Tampa history, a $2.3 billion expansion of Tampa International Airport, is at the center of a nasty power struggle among local legislators that could derail their work on a state budget.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants state auditors to review the first phase of the airport project, citing possible cost overruns and construction setbacks based on TV reports.

The Senate has already rejected an audit, but Corcoran said he will demand that it be in a compromise budget that must be finished in two weeks, which means the Senate will have to capitulate or risk a stalemate.

"When you're spending billions of dollars in taxpayer money, nobody should be afraid of an audit, to make sure they're spending it right," Corcoran told the Times/Herald.

Airport director Joe Lopano said he keeps his five-member governing board up to date every month on the project's time lines and budget.

"We're not afraid of an audit," Lopano said. "We're very proud of this project. And if the elected officials would like to have an audit, they should. We're not afraid of that at all."

See related coverage: Tampa International Airport details Phase II of $2.3 billion construction plan

Corcoran's call for an audit in Week 7 of a nine-week legislative session follows a failed effort last week by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, to require it.

Lee set off a furor in the Senate when he spoke of "potential public corruption" and "perhaps falsification of financial information" on the project, causing rifts with other senators.

Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said he should have brought his concerns to all Hillsborough lawmakers and questioned his tactics. Requests for audits are typically sent to a the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, challenged Lee, and the audit request died on an unrecorded voice vote.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sided with Lee.

Lee, an ally of Corcoran's, said his call for an audit was based on local news reports, a look at documents related to bonds for the project, and talks with Martin Garcia, a Tampa lawyer and investor and former member of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, a five-member board that oversees the airport.

The first local news outlet that reported critically on the project was WTSP-Channel 10, which in 2015 reported that added retail space would cost $2,000 per square foot.

WFLA-Channel 8 reported in March that the centerpiece of the expansion's first phase, a 2.6 million square foot rental car facility linked to a people mover, is behind schedule, but that cost overruns would be paid by the contractor, not taxpayers.

Garcia a quit the board in 2014 without explanation. He had questioned the need for the rental car center and called for an independent financial feasibility study. But while on the board, he also voted for the project.

Garcia couldn't be reached for comment on Tuesday. His memos were part of a 2015 story by WTSP's Mike Deeson that Lee said he used as part of his research.

Lee said Garcia provided him additional information that "sort of confirmed my concerns." One of them is on a $5.95 daily increase in airport rental car fees to help pay off bonds for the new center, which he said might not be adequate because ride-sharing services could dent future rental car sales.

Latvala countered by citing a recent decision by Fitch Ratings to upgrade its ratings on $728 million in airport bonds.

"He's throwing rocks at anybody he can and I think that's wrong," Latvala said of Lee. "I'm concerned that the best airport in the country is being unjustly besmirched."

Latvala and Lee have clashed on various issues, but their mutual hostility appears to have worsened.

"A lot of things get said to try to tarnish the reputations of people around here," Lee said. "You have to take it with a grain of salt."

Another ex-authority member, Sam Rashid, said he supports an audit but doesn't believe it will reveal impropriety.

"The project may be slightly over budget but these people know what they're doing," said Rashid, who quit the board seven months ago after he verbally attacked a local consultant on social media. "I think the airport is perfectly clean. I don't think they'll find anything."

Corcoran has aggressively questioned spending practices of Enterprise Florida, Visit Florida and state universities. At his insistence, the House refused to give Gov. Rick Scott $13 million more to pay legal fees in a protracted three-state legal battle over water rights.

Corcoran, 52, casts himself as a fiscal watchdog, and the massive airport project is an inviting target. He's considering running for governor in 2018.

The five-member aviation authority is chaired by Robert Watkins, a Tampa accountant. Members include Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist.

Corcoran, a lawyer, was hired in 2011 to work at the Broad and Cassel law firm by its Tampa managing partner, Steve Burton, who was instrumental in pushing for change in the airport's former management team, led by Louis Miller. Burton later served at chairman of the aviation board. He died in 2013.

Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.