Bill Carlson wanted to go on international trade missions with agency he now wants to defund

The Tampa City Council member say his rebuff by the Tampa Economic Development Council isn’t related to his call to cut city funding to the agency. The council’s chief executive disagrees.
Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson wanted to go on international trade missions organized by the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council. When his plan was rebuffed, he expressed frustration. Did it factor into his decision to recommend a cut in city funding to the agency?
Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson wanted to go on international trade missions organized by the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council. When his plan was rebuffed, he expressed frustration. Did it factor into his decision to recommend a cut in city funding to the agency?
Published Oct. 30, 2019|Updated Nov. 1, 2019

TAMPA — Over a July lunch at the downtown University Club, Bill Carlson told the Tampa Economic Development Council’s chief executive he wanted to go on future international trade missions organized by the agency.

That much both sides agree on. But they dispute nearly everything else about that lunch and a subsequent email exchange obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

Most importantly, they have starkly different versions about how their communications relate to the Tampa City Council member’s call this week to defund the Development Council.

RELATED: Bill Carlson wants to cut city funding for development agency

According to Craig J. Richard, the agency’s CEO, Carlson started by telling him there was a new City Council with new ideas. The council’s new role included international travel, Richard said Carlson told him, and left the impression there would be negative consequences for the council’s $538,000 annual contract with the city if those ideas weren’t adopted.

Carlson made it "crystal clear,“ Richard said. "Look there’s going to be some changes. These are my ideas. Get with the program.”

Carlson said Richard is lying.

“That’s completely stupid. He’s completely fabricating these allegations,” Carlson said, adding he only wanted to go on the trips in a “watchdog” role to make sure the council was spending taxpayer dollars effectively.

Emails exchanged between the two men a few weeks later reveal growing tension around Carlson’s requests.

Carlson’s first email on the evening of Aug. 5 referenced the lunch and asked if Richard wanted to “partner” with him on international economic development or “if you think I should just lead my own initiative.”

Richard replied that there were many opportunities for Carlson to participate in the missions as a “gold key participant or an investor" as a business leader. Carlson is president of Tucker Hall, a public relations firm.

But Mayor Jane Castor would be the city’s official representative on the missions, Richard said.

“She determines who (if anyone) will represent the city on missions,” he wrote Carlson.

Carlson replied: “I think this is a limited and shortsighted response.”

Fourteen minutes later, at 8:50 p.m., Carlson elaborated: “I feel like I wasted my time and that you are not interested in taking international efforts to the next level. This is why Tampa never moves forward.”

Carlson said his frustration with Richard’s rebuff of his request to be a part of the trips had no connection with his recent call to cancel the agency’s contract.

He said he decided to act after learning of the development agency’s recent decision to include “Tampa Bay” in its new name. Carlson said that move damaged regional cooperation and trust.

“It has nothing to do with whether I could go,” Carlson said. “I only brought up the issue of funding after I saw a pattern of arrogance and lack of transparency that peaked with the way they treated our partners in the region.”

Richard said he listened uneasily at the July lunch to Carlson’s strategy for the trade missions to target “rich families" in foreign countries to strike business deals. That’s a much different approach from the council’s normal protocol of arranging meetings with companies with assistance from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Commercial Service.

“It didn’t pass the smell test. I thought of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act,” Richard said, referring to a federal law that bans paying bribes to foreign officials or businesses in the process of negotiating deals.

Carlson called that interpretation incorrect and said it was common practice in trade missions to meet with rich individuals abroad, who often control companies. He mentioned the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim as an example.

“That proves he doesn’t understand international business," Carlson said.

Richard tried to engage in a “shakedown” by pressuring him to become a member of the council as a way to go on the trips, Carlson said. Richard said he was merely trying to offer other ways that Carlson could be a part of the trade missions as either a private individual or as a representative of his company. Those options are open to all businesses who are members, Richard said.

Neither Carlson nor his firm are members of the council. Carlson’s firm is a member of the St. Petersburg Economic Development Corporation.

In the email exchange, Richard writes: “I must defer to the mayor’s decision. She is our official representative from the city and she determines who (if anyone) will represent the city on missions that require elected officials.”

Also at issue is whether Carlson offered to pay his own way on the trips.

“He never said he’d pay his own way,” Richard said.

Carlson said he did say he would cover his expenses.

“He’s attacking me personally to draw attention away from their lack of transparency, their poor performance and the upset around the region about the name change," he said.

The council’s contract is scheduled to be discussed at the City Council’s Nov. 7 meeting. At least two council members said they think the economic development agency is performing well and see no reason to cancel the contract. Castor has also signaled support for the agency, which also receives about $500,000 each year from the county.