TAMPA — Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents have taken possession of seven Public Transportation Commission cellphones as it steps up an investigation into whether public records were deliberately deleted from the devices.
The phones were used by PTC staffers, including former executive director Kyle Cockream. Billing records show Cockream sent text messages to the owner of a local taxicab firm and PTC board members before Sept. 2. But those messages — considered to be public records if related to agency business — are missing from his phone. A forensic investigator found that Cockream's phone and six other agency phones had been wiped clean and reset in October.
FDLE agents collected the devices from the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office on Wednesday, said Stephen Todd, senior assistant county attorney.
"The FDLE advises that they are conducting an open criminal investigation," he said.
An FDLE spokeswoman confirmed that.
The missing texts came to light as the result of a public records lawsuit filed by the law office of Andrea Flynn Mogensen, a Sarasota attorney who was seeking evidence that PTC officials had sided with taxicab and limousine-rental firms in their battle against ridesharing firms Uber and Lyft.
Under Florida's Sunshine Law, any citizen can request copies of public documents. Deleting public records is a misdemeanor criminal offense.
"I'm very happy to see law enforcement enforcing those laws," Mogensen said. "I think it's a positive step because there are criminal implications for Sunshine violations and public records violations," she said.
As a result of the lawsuit, Cockream in November gave up his agency and personal cellphone to a forensic investigator hired to extract text messages.
But before that, the PTC gave his phones and those used by staffers to Valrico tech firm Data Specialist Group.
The firm performed a reset on all eight phones, according to the forensic investigator.
In a recent hearing, Cockream attorney Michael Carey said his client was not trying to hide records but hired the firm to back up the data on the phones. He did not return a call seeking comment.
The forensic investigator recently was able to "undelete" some text messages from Cockream's personal phone using an online backup account.
The texts included profanity-laden exchanges between Cockream and then-PTC chief inspector Brett Saunders, joking about putting former PTC Chairman Victor Crist on a bonfire.
Saunders, who was paid a $71,000 annual salary, resigned this week after the texts were made public. Cockream, who earned $150,000 per year, stepped down as PTC chief at the end of December. He had been scheduled to remain in the post through March.
More information may come to light Monday when Cockream has been ordered to appear before Mogensen and Todd at a four-hour deposition scheduled for 1 p.m.
Attorneys for all three parties in the lawsuit are also scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss how to resolve the public records lawsuit.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.