By Sharon Calvert, from Eye on Tampa Bay
Almost $760,000 has been paid to the New York baseball lawyer Irwin Raij by Hillsborough County in its pursuit of a new Rays baseball stadium.
The handsome sum was paid from October 2014 through July 2019.
Raij was paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to negotiate in secrecy and in backroom meetings while keeping the taxpayers paying his fees totally in the dark. Eye on Tampa Bay received the invoices paid to the baseball law firm from a public records request.
The county commissioners never requested regular updates to publicly discuss the progress being made or the cost to taxpayers to pursue a new Rays stadium.
Perhaps it was because the commissioners used the Consent Agenda to hire Raij in October 2014. The vehicle is used to approve numerous items with a single vote with no discussion. Consent Agenda items are supposed to be routine, procedural or noncontroversial.
Hiring an expensive New York lawyer to pursue a new baseball stadium is not routine, it is not procedural, it is not without controversy and it should have been discussed.
Below is the Consent Agenda item from the October 15, 2014 BOCC meeting that was used to approve hiring the baseball law firm.
This Consent Agenda item misled the public by not detailing that the item was intended to hire a New York law firm to pursue a new Rays stadium.
With no discussion by the commissioners about the cost, spending limits, duration or time limits, paying Raij went on auto-pilot.
The Tampa Bay Times admitted the “hush-hush” way the lawyer was hired when it finally reported three months later on January 15, 2015 in its article that Hillsborough officials quietly hired law firm with ties to baseball.
While the public was not told why Raij was hired in 2014, Raij obviously knows why he was hired.
Raij’s bio states he is “Representing Hillsborough County in its ongoing efforts to build a new ball park for the Tampa Bay Rays.” He’s more honest with the public than the county who hired him.
Since the original contract with Mr. Raij in 2014, there have been some amendments and renewals. They all went through the Consent Agenda with no discussion.
The Consent Agenda items associated with the baseball lawyer contract provided no dollar amount or estimated cost – just a statement the item could be accommodated within the current budget.
The latest contract with O’Melveny & Myers/Mr. Raij was approved in a Consent Agenda item at the August 2, 2017 BOCC meeting. It is two-year contract with one renewal term for another two years.
That August 2017 Consent Agenda item not only approved the baseball lawyer contract, it hired nine outside legal counsel firms, including four hired specifically for eminent domain issues.
From October 2014 thru December 2018, Hillsborough County paid the baseball lawyer almost $673K. But the cost to the taxpayer also includes the time and effort expended by the county’s highest paid staff pursuing the stadium.
When we requested an accounting from the county for the total costs, including the time and effort expended by county resources, associated with pursuing the new Rays stadium, we received only the invoices paid to the baseball lawyer.
As the Rays agreement with St. Petersburg to explore Hillsborough County was about to expire at the end of last year, the Tampa Sports Authority stepped in to take over paying the county’s baseball lawyer contract.
At the Tampa Sports Authority meeting of November 27, 2018, the Board approved piggy backing on the county’s contract with O’Melveny & Myers/Mr. Raij. Mr. Raij is now working for the Tampa Sports Authority and they are now paying the baseball lawyer’s bills.
The Tampa Sports Authority is subsidized by County and city of Tampa tax dollars.
Apparently, County Administrator Mike Merrill decided to hand off paying the baseball lawyer, still under the county’s contract, to the Tampa Sports Authority. Merrill informed the commissioners of his action via an internal memo.
From January thru July this year, the Tampa Sports Authority has paid Raij, the baseball lawyer, over $86K.
Board member Andrew Scaglione recused himself from a TSA meeting last November when votes were taken regarding Raij and selection of the baseball stadium builder. Scaglione stated he was recusing himself because he owns property where the stadium is proposed to be built.
The baseball stadium working group included Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the Tampa Sports Authority and some unnamed private interests. The baseball working group met for years behind closed doors with the unnamed private interests, the Rays, the taxpayer funded baseball lawyer and the highest paid county staff pursuing a new Rays stadium.
Hagan and Scaglione both sit on the Tampa Sports Authority Board and are prohibited from coordinating on issues related to the sports authority – like a new baseball stadium.
Hagan continues to pursue an Ybor City baseball stadium nowhere near the District 2 he represents. He has been promoting pursuing an “entertainment district” in Ybor City subsidized with tourist taxes the county commission just raised, Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) property tax revenues/tax-increment financing (TIF’s), federal opportunity zone incentives and a tax on food, drink and sports tickets.
In his 2018 re-election campaign, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan solicited and accepted donations from real estate interests that stand to benefit from construction of a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in Ybor City.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, mopping up an investigation of corruption in Tallahassee, has indicated that other jurisdictions in Florida are under its microscope.
Other cities showing interest in getting a Major League Baseball team include Portland. Raij also represents the Portland Diamond Project but apparently does not view that as a conflict of interest.