A bill passed by the Florida state House last week to dispose of the nearly $570 million from the defunct Hillsborough County All for Transportation sales tax includes setting aside more than $6.2 million of the money for legal fees.
But even though the bill lists a very specific amount — $6,214,557 — no one seems to know whom the fees are for or whether any of the lawyers involved in litigation over the tax intend to make any claims.
Among those lawyers is prominent Tampa Republican Martin Garcia, a major donor to GOP candidates and causes and a political ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis recently appointed Garcia head of the board to take over administration of Disney World.
The tax, passed in 2018 by 57% of county voters, added a penny local sales tax for transportation improvements. The Florida Supreme Court voided the tax in February 2021 in response to a lawsuit by then-County Commissioner Stacy White. The tax, collected for 26 months, generated nearly $570 million including interest. That left the question of what to do with the money in the hands of the state Legislature, but advocates have argued that it should go where voters intended, to fix some of the county’s severe transportation woes.
White was represented by Garcia and Chris Altenbernd of Tampa.
In a letter to White agreeing to take the case, the lawyers said they would work “pro bono” — with no fee — and hadn’t been offered any fee, but added, “If someone does make such an offer we will consider it.”
In interviews last week, White and Altenbernd both said they don’t know whom the money is being set aside for, and Altenbernd said he doesn’t intend to seek any fees — “I’m not going to pursue money even if the Legislature sets it aside.”
Garcia didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Another lawsuit filed over the tax involved Howard Coker, a friend of Garcia and principal of a Jacksonville-based personal injury firm, plus a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm known for class-action suits. Neither Coker nor Derek Ho of the Washington firm responded to messages seeking comment.
During House consideration of the 73-page omnibus tax bill on Thursday, Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, asked bill sponsor Rep. Stan McClain, R-Ocala, the purpose of the money set aside.
“There was an estimate that there were going to be some fees, probably legal fees,” McClain responded. “We don’t know what the number would be. There was just an estimate that that could be up to this amount.”
The same section of the bill also sets aside $785,443 for “administrative costs,” for a round total of $7 million for “expenditures associated with implementing this act.”
Preston Rudie, spokesperson for the All for Transportation advocacy group that led the campaign for the tax, said the group believes “Every single penny of the funds collected for transportation should be spent on transportation. We are not aware who is seeking attorneys fees from the Florida legislature but it certainly isn’t anyone who was involved on our team.”