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Ethics complaint argues Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White violated state law

Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White is accused in an ethics complaint of violating state law as he tried to overturn the county’s newly approved transportation sales tax. White says the complaint is baseless and a publicity stunt. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White is accused in an ethics complaint of violating state law as he tried to overturn the county’s newly approved transportation sales tax. White says the complaint is baseless and a publicity stunt. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Apr. 30, 2019

TAMPA — A Hillsborough County political activist filed an ethics complaint this week arguing that commissioner Stacy White violated state law at least 27 times in his attempt to overturn a transportation sales tax.

Civil engineer James Shirk is asking the Florida Ethics Commission to review what he says are multiple violations of state ethics law and the Sunshine Amendment. The violations stem from a lawsuit White filed in December arguing that the one-cent transportation sales tax voters approved in November usurps power from the commission and is invalid.

A hearing on the case, which White re-filed as a citizen, is scheduled before Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Rex Barbas on Friday.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: $158,000 and counting — Legal costs rise in suit against Hillsborough transportation tax

"This ethics complaint is clearly a publicity stunt that has been conveniently timed to coincide with this Friday's hearing on my lawsuit," White said in a statement. He also called the complaint "baseless" and said all of his actions related to the lawsuit have been undertaken with a lawyer's advice.

Shirk's 14-page complaint alleges that White used his role as a commissioner to further his legal case to his personal benefit and to obtain tens of thousands of dollars in gifts. Shirk also argued White violated the Sunshine Amendment by omitting information from ethics commission filings, refusing to file required reports, failing to respond to public records requests in a timely manner and failing to disclose a conflict of interest.

The Florida Ethics Commission does not release information about complaints until a decision is made, nor does it confirm whether a complaint has been filed, spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman said.

Once a complaint is received, the commission notifies all parties involved. White's office is aware of the complaint, but had not been contacted by the commission as of Tuesday afternoon.

Shirk wrote in the complaint that White directed county staff to work on his lawsuit, which names the county as a defendant, on at least four occasions in November and December. Shirk said White also failed to disclose that Bascom Communications "provided significant public relations services," including helping with an op-ed that was published in the Tampa Bay Times.

RELATED: Hillsborough presses forward on transportation tax as legal battles continue

He said state law requires that White disclose these services, and others from law firm Baker Lopez Gassler, as gifts. White did disclose services from his lead attorney, Chris Altenbernd.

Shirk based some of his allegations on text messages acquired through a public records request that show White was also consulting Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, on strategy for the lawsuit.

"Senator Lee informed me that there is a slight change in course on how to best communicate this and I tried to make my draft of the op-ed reflective of that," White texted Sarah Bascom on Dec. 3, the day before he filed the lawsuit.

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There is no set time frame for the commission, which meets every six to eight weeks, to review a complaint, said Stillman, the spokeswoman.

The commission will first make a determination on whether it has jurisdiction to investigation allegations. If an investigator is not assigned, the complaint still goes before the full commission. If there is jurisdiction, the investigator would bring the complaint before a probable cause hearing.

If the commission finds probable cause, the respondent can choose to reach a settlement agreement or the case complaint can go to an evidence hearing where the commission would determine whether the law was violated, Stillman said.

"How long a case takes depends on the nature and complexity of the allegations, how far it goes in the process and the commission's workload at the time," she said.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.