By Jim Bleyer
A land deal that would cost Hillsborough County taxpayers an estimated $600 million to enrich corporate interests, at least one public official, and Tampa Bay Times investors was suddenly unveiled yesterday to an unsuspecting public.
It’s an unraveling plot that is worthy of the duplicity, corruption, and intrigue found in “24” or “House of Cards.”
County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who never met a developer he didn’t embrace, for months conducted negotiations in secret. He was quoted by the Times as saying that “the community has reached an agreement with land owners” to gain site control of about 14 acres there.
But is Hagan speaking “for the community?” Not a peep out of the other six county commissioners, County Administrator Mike Merrill, or any member of the Tampa City Council.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the media he was “surprised” by the development but added, “the location makes sense.” Tampa Bay Beat doesn’t buy Buckhorn’s feigned ignorance.
A nonprofit corporation was created in order that all communications and dealings could be kept under wraps, an obvious gambit to avert Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law. According to the Florida Department of State’s Division of Corporations, corporate papers were filed by Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP.
It is a given in Tampa political circles that Buckhorn will lobby for the Shumaker firm, whose wheelhouse is land use, as soon as he leaves office in 2019.
Local bloggers from throughout the political spectrum oppose the funnelling of tax dollars for a new Rays stadium. Only the Times and other pay-for play media entities have remained silent or supported the money grab.
WTSP’s Noah Pransky has led the charge in shining a light on the cloaked stadium negotiations with his Shadow of the Stadium blog. Two weeks ago, Sharon Calvert’s Eye on Tampa Bay ran a comprehensive analysis of the pitfalls involved in any stadium deal. The Ybor City Stogie has for years opposed tax dollars being used to finance a Rays stadium.
Tampa Bay Beat last week reported that real estate baron Darryl Shaw, who stands to reap at least $100 million from a stadium relocation to Ybor City, is one of the secret “investors” who bailed out the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year.
Shaw has entered into an option agreement with a nonprofit led by Tampa lawyer Ronald Christaldi, who represents Shumaker, and prominent businessman Charles Sykes. It can transfer the site to the county, Rays or any other entity, should the team agree to move to Tampa.
The machinations that could lead to a $600 million taxpayer ripoff are shielded from public record.
The under-the-table scheme faces a ton of hurdles.
—The Rays and owner Stuart Sternberg—and Major League Baseball—must decide if they want to be associated with an unethical and possibly illegal contrivance let alone whether or not the Ybor site is even suitable.
—Then there are other public officials, either running for office again or conscious of their legacy, who are responsible to the public but have yet to weigh in on Hagan’s proposal.
—A portion of the proposed parcel is owned by TECO, a utility presumably regulated by the State of Florida. It must consent in order for the proposal to become less unfeasible.
—Then there is a law enforcement aspect. State Attorney Andrew Warren and/or the FDLE could very well investigate the entire process to ensure the letter of the law was followed at every turn. And if even a scintilla of any transaction, negotiation, or funding occurred across state lines or internationally, the FBI would have a stake.
—The Internal Revenue Service has received a complaint challenging the nonprofit status of the Poynter Institute, parent of the Tampa Bay Times. If the IRS perceives the newly created “nonprofit” as an artiface, that corporation could end up being taxed and its records subject to disclosure.
The Times, not wanting to alienate Shaw and any other investor that will benefit from the deal, has not questioned the secret negotiations or the wisdom of dropping a half-empty monstrosity onto Ybor’s fabled landscape.
“But once the search started, the Channel District-Ybor site emerged as the top contender,” reported the once-trusted Times late yesterday. Besides Shaw, Jeff Vinik, who is developing 50 acres in Channelside, has been identified as a Times investor.
Shaw and Vinik have contributed to Hagan’s 2018 bid for a fifth term on the county commission.