By Jim Bleyer
The federal investigation into shady land deals in Hillsborough County includes several targets besides County Commissioner Ken Hagan and his family, Tampa Bay Beat has learned.
Those being investigated include private citizens as well as other public officials, according to our source in Tallahassee. No specific names were mentioned but could very well include Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, former Mayor Bob Buckhorn, County Administrator Mike Merrill, Water Street Tampa developer Jeff Vinik, and Ybor City land magnate Darryl Shaw.
All promoted and/or had a significant economic interest in a countywide light rail transit referendum and relocation of a ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays from St. Petersburg to Ybor City. Constitutionality of the referendum is tied up in the Florida Supreme Court where it is expected to be struck down.
Both houses of the Florida Legislature and the powerful Associated Industries of Florida have filed amicus curiae briefs in favor of jettisoning the one percent additional sales tax that makes Hillsborough the highest taxing county in Florida.
The FBI probe into Hagan will determine whether or not the commissioner broke the law in leveraging his considerable influence inside the county center to benefit developers, landowners, and attorneys he is connected to either by blood or friendship.
It was our Tallahassee source that led to this Aug. 19 Tampa Bay Beat story that asserted the FBI, fresh from indicting City of Tallahassee officials, are looking at local governments throughout Florida. A photo of Hagan accompanied the article.
Shaw and Vinik are both “investors” in the economically-reeling Tampa Bay Times who has led the charge for raiding the public treasury to finance light rail and a stadium in Ybor. More than two years ago, Tampa Bay Beat reported Shaw was financially entangled with the Times prior to any entity purporting to be the mainstream media.
A new Rays stadium, enthusiastically endorsed by team owner Stu Sternberg, appears a long shot, despite the efforts of Hagan and Merrill to cobble together a $650 million+ package, the public subsidy for Sternberg’s projected $800 million playpen.
Hillsborough County commissioners, aware voters have lost their appetite for siphoning public money to support a sports owner, have refused to place the stadium issue on a countywide ballot. Most of the commission is all in on subsidizing the stadium, apparently unaware of the corrupt tentacles reaching from county center to Hagan’s profiteering friends. Sternberg is a New York-based billionaire whose time spent in Tampa Bay appears solely to convince public officials to help bail out his attendance-starved franchise.
Castor has shamelessly promoted a taxpayer-financed Rays ballpark in Ybor where a ballpark and attending development would destroy the character of one of the country’s most historic neighborhoods. Shaw would make hundreds of millions from such a deal and Vinik’s project, now laughingly called “Underwater” Street Tampa, would undergo an economic Renaissance if the new Rays stadium came to fruition.
Castor has repeatedly refused to respond to interview requests from Tampa Bay Beat, preferring lobbed softballs from the obsequious local media. For a former police chief, she strikingly lacks mettle.
Former Tampa Mayor Buckhorn pushed the stadium in tandem with Hagan for months but fell strangely silent on the matter starting about a year ago. Many speculated that Buckhorn was turned off by Hagan’s tactics and spurious connections who would collect a windfall on the deal. Others believed the canny politician weighed the risk-reward ratio and found a distaste for it.
Vinik, a former hedge fund manager and the de facto owner of the Times, has had a bad year: his underfunded hedge fund closed down; his downtown development is years behind the original projected schedule; his heavily-favored hockey team made history by getting swept in the first round of the playoffs costing Vinik as much as $100 million; and the transportation tax he spent millions promoting is about to get tossed by the Florida Supreme Court. Even the supremely ugly Sarasota mansion he built sits as an idle eyesore in a tony St. Armands Key neighborhood.
None of Vinik’s travails, including SEC investigations, and the reasons for them are ever reported by the Times.