By Jim Bleyer
“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching”—C. S. Lewis
The rap sheet for the proposed mega-controversial Go Hillsborough referendum grew longer than “War and Peace” this week.
Adding to the legacy of cronyism, secrecy, and misinformation was a spurious investigation that cleared high-profile GH proponents from any criminal wrongdoing in formulating a highly-questionable mass transit plan that would cost voters billions. Sheriff David Gee and State Attorney Mark Ober, with obvious conflicts of interest, conducted the sham probe.
A series of enterprising reports by WTSP 10 News, the only Bay area mainstream media outlet disseminating all aspects of the Go Hillsborough fiasco, triggered the investigation. The question: did county commissioners, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, county staff, and public relations consultant Beth Leythem violate any laws during the procurement of the 1.35 million contract to promote the initiative under the guise of information gathering?
With several other public and private agencies available to conduct an impartial investigation, the Hillsborough County Commission, at County Administrator Mike Merrill’s recommendation, chose the sheriff’s department whose budget it controls. Gee could have demurred on the basis of conflict of interest but proceeded anyway. Merrill comically called the sheriff “independent.”
As if a financial hammer poised over his noggin wasn’t enough to discount any findings, Gee hired Bobby O’Neill, formerly a U. S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, as a consultant in its investigation. O’Neill is a drinking buddy of Buckhorn, one of the supposed targets in the Go Hillsborough imbroglio.
The Commission also announced that State Attorney Mark Ober, who faces a tough re-election fight against a gritty opponent, would review the sheriff department findings for any criminality. Ober should have recused himself from the investigation as his longtime significant other Yvonne Fry is a vocal advocate of Go Hillsborough and reportedly harbors political ambitions of her own.
(Less than two hours after we posted this blog, Fry erased her promotion of an increased sales tax from her Facebook page but we previously took a screen shot (appears below).
Floridiocy interviewed three Bay area attorneys asking them whether Ober’s failure to step aside violated Florida Bar ethics, State of Florida ethics, both, or neither. The unanimous response was that it constitutes an impropriety on both counts. Florida state attorneys have transferred cases to other jurisdictions for conflicts-of-interest far more benign than this one.
At this point, seasoned courthouse observers knew that a whitewash was a fait accompli. So did at least one alleged conspirator, Leythem, who, five months ago after the investigation was launched, confidently trumpeted to a sympathetic arm of the mainstream media, “I sleep and I sleep well.”
If Merrill designed the investigation to restore public confidence in the Go Hillsborough plan and process, he failed miserably. Both are now seen by many voters as irretrievably corrupted.
Key evidence were text messages exchanged among Leythem, Buckhorn, and county commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandra Murman. Detectives never got their hands on those texts that might have provided conclusive evidence whether or not elected officials violated criminal statutes.
“There is no evidence of official misconduct or improper influence in the procurement and selection process of Parsons Brinckerhoff,” the no-bid contractor for the Go Hillsborough plan, Ober wrote in a 12-page summary of the investigation. Murman was fingered for improperly disposing of text messages that were public records. Ober said she didn’t do it knowingly and imposed no fine. He asserted commissioners and their staffs should be trained on legal requirements regarding public records.
Justice at work. Laughable.
Parsons Brinckerhoff, an international engineering firm, stands to gobble up fees well into the nine-figure range with Go Hillsborough’s light rail component. Parsons has left a trail of tears in many of its previous projects. The most egregious catastrophe, Boston’s Big Dig, suffered massive cost overruns, design flaws, use of substandard materials, missed timelines, lawsuits, and safety violations resulting in deaths. It is considered the most poorly executed infrastructure project in U. S. history. There are several other Parsons Brinckerhoff endeavors that involve similar problems as well as outright bribery.
It’s time to pump the brakes on Go Hillsborough.
(The writer is a former courthouse journalist and also served as an investigator for a State attorney’s office in another Florida jurisdiction. The attorneys, whose opinions are reflected in the story, requested anonymity)