TAMPA — City Council member Bill Carlson suggested Thursday that Florida’s third-largest city might be vulnerable to an FBI investigation into the way it awards city contracts.
Carlson didn’t provide any evidence for his claims and couched them by saying he just wanted to make sure city officials weren’t committing illegal acts.
The comments arose from a routine staff report presented at Thursday’s meeting. They exploded into acrimony as Carlson pointed a finger at the administration of former mayor Bob Buckhorn.
“My concern is that ... at least one news outlet has said the FBI is looking at local governments and they didn’t specifically say the city of Tampa, but there were enough rumors about how things were done in the last eight years that I have concerns about them looking at the city."
Council member John Dingfelder also said he has long been concerned about single-bid contracts, where the city awards money after receiving only one response after issuing a request for a proposals. Such bids have ranged from $25,000 to much larger amounts.
City officials Thursday say they don’t know how many single-bid contracts have been awarded in recent years or how much money is involved. But purchasing director Gregory Spearman, whom Dingfelder called nationally recognized and highly ethical, has earned the council’s trust, Dingfelder said.
Spearman, who has headed the department since 2003 and oversees about $400 million in contracts each year, then addressed Carlson.
“We run an operation that is full of integrity, ethics and professionalism," he said. “We don’t play politics. We do not tamper with due process ... The FBI, the CIA, anybody. Invite them to come in and have a look."
Buckhorn, whom Carlson has criticized during most City Council meetings since he took office in May, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mayor Jane Castor won’t immediately address Carlson’s statements, said spokeswoman Ashley Bauman.
“The mayor is busy governing and ensuring the city of Tampa is the best place to live, work and play,” Bauman said.
Carlson said in an interview that his reference to an FBI investigation comes from a report last year by WTSP-Ch. 10 involving Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan. Hagan has denied he is under investigation and the television report didn’t name any sources.
The report made no mention of Tampa city officials.
City Council chairman Luis Viera said he thought Carlson crossed a line and used a term popular among people who see a conspiracy within the operations of the federal government.
“I do not want to get to the point where we’re going to talk about the city of Tampa ‘deep state,’" Viera said.
“When the words FBI get noted ... we’re going a little too far,” Viera said.
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Council member Charlie Miranda, who has served eight terms, said he welcomed an FBI investigation of current and former elected officials. Glancing at Carlson, he said everyone should be subject to the review.
In the interview, Carlson said the city shouldn’t have so many single-bid contracts, in part because they cost the city money.
“The purpose is really that we have good government going forward,” he said.
“I’m about good government and making sure the city of Tampa is run correctly. It obviously was not run correctly. There were few professional processes in the last eight years."
He said he doesn’t believe the Castor administration is corrupt.
The fireworks started after city auditor Christine Glover presented a report, requested by Carlson, that said single-bid contracts are awarded mostly because of a thriving economy where vendors are less likely to go after work for the city.
Some city legal policies may also discourage bidders and Spearman said he planned to met with city legal and risk management staff to discuss the issue.
Later, in an interview, Spearman pointed out that his department doesn’t handle contracts for large public works projects such as major construction, water or sewer repairs.
He insisted his department is not corrupt.
“We’re doing all that can be done and should be done," he said, “to get competition.”