TAMPA, Florida -- New documents obtained by 10 Investigates reveal Hillsborough County commissioners Sandy Murman and Ken Hagan failed to produce public records requested in June, possibly violating state open records laws.

Now, one commissioner is apologizing while the other is pushing back and blaming county staffers.

As part of its investigation into the behind-the-scenes influences between private consultant Beth Leytham and several powerful politicians, 10 Investigates requested on June 3 all emails between eight individual officials and Leytham since the start of 2013, regardless of email address used. Florida's open records laws, compiled in Chapter 119 of state statutes, requires public officials and employees to turn over any emails about government topics, including messages stored on personal email accounts.

READ: Just-released emails from Ken Hagan

Murman and Hagan both provided 10 Investigates their emails from their official government accounts, but no emails from their personal accounts.

On June 19, 10 Investigates again requested the public emails from personal accounts, to which a Hillsborough County public information employee responded, "Yes. Commissioners Murman, Crist, Miller and Hagan report that they have no responsive records to this request (for emails on personal accounts)."

 

During subsequent records requests in August and September, the three officials also failed to produce any text messages requested by 10 Investigates, claiming they were all purely personal in nature, and therefore, exempt from public records laws.

But only when citizen activist Tom Rask threatened to take legal action against Leytham on Oct. 13 for failing to provide the public records in her capacity as a government contractor, did Murman and Hagan agree to release dozens of previously-secret emails regarding county business.

Those public records – never produced for 10 Investigates by commissioners – reveal that not all the emails were personal in nature, with many dealing with county-related topics such as transportation expansion (now dubbed "Go Hillsborough") as well as coordination on newspaper op-eds Leytham helped the commissioners write.

The 85 emails from Hagan and 27 emails from Murman also demonstrate how frequently the commissioners use their personal AOL accounts to discuss public business. And the failure to turn the documents over to 10 Investigates, despite several requests, raises new questions about whether additional electronic communications may exist between the county's most powerful politicians and one of its most powerful behind-the-scenes operatives.

Following 10 Investigates' June request for commissioners' public emails stored on their private email accounts, Murman forwarded the request from her official county email account to her personal AOL account. Fifteen minutes later, she then forwarded it to Leytham, writing "read this." But their communications were never provided in response to the request.

10 Investigates broadcast its initial report into Leytham's close relationship with Murman, Hagan, and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in September 2015, detailing how the parties often chatted behind-the-scenes, possibly in violation of numerous state ethics and Sunshine laws. The report also showed how Leytham would donate political services to her friends, who could later play a role in helping her land lucrative government contracts.

 

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) is now investigating many of WTSP's findings "to determine if any state or local laws have been violated," including open records laws. Violations of FSS 119 can be punished by up to 354 days in jail or fines up to $1,000.

"I didn't mean any harm," Murman told 10 Investigates Monday. "I've worked so hard in this community for 35 years and I know I'm not perfect but I am accountable and I want to make sure that that's understood in this whole process."

Murman blamed a breakdown in communication within her office -- and a misunderstanding of what emails are considered public records -- for not providing the documents to 10 Investigates in June. The commission chairwoman, who also pushed for increased lobbying transparency following 10 Investigates' initial report, says the county needs to overhaul how it processes public records requests to ensure the mistakes are never repeated.

Hagan also blamed staff for not delivering the message to him, saying aide Steve McGlocklin never told him of the June 3 request for his private emails and that county staff never told him of the June 19 follow-up request. McGlocklin said Monday he relayed the message to Hagan verbally, but there was no intent to withhold records.

Hagan, who paid a $2,000 fine for minor state ethics violations last year regarding financial disclosures, declined multiple interview requests. But in a full-page written letter, told 10 Investigates Monday "your allegations are without merit and completely unfounded."

"What we have here is a failure in the County's process for providing responses to public records requests, not the withholding of public records," the letter continued. "My Legislative Aide…made some effort to determine if there were any documents that were responsive to your request, and he believed there were not. As you can now see from the emails provided, none of these relate to any official County action."

LINK: Hagan's entire letter to 10 Investigates

But Florida laws take a broad interpretation of public information, including most conversations regarding public business. Many of Leytham's email exchanges with Hagan and Murman regarded Go Hillsborough. However, Hagan says he is only now providing emails from his personal account -- not because of the law -- but "in an effort to be transparent."

"The County Attorney's Office has accepted responsibility for this failure, and they have implemented steps to prevent similar miscommunications in responses to public records requests," Hagan wrote, adding that he plans to address the issue at the next county commission meeting.

Hillsborough County Attorney Chip Fletcher said Monday his office takes responsibility for the "imprecise communications" and he's instituting changes immediately to make sure commissioners are aware anytime the county or a legislative aide receives a records request for their public records.

Texts Messages Also Missing

Murman told 10 Investigates in August that she had turned over all responsive documents and didn't ever text Leytham about government business. She later said that she may have sent Leytham pertinent messages over the years, but didn't have a way to retrieve old texts from her cell phone provider.

But even as other commissioners turned over numerous text messages from Leytham off their private devices, Hagan and Buckhorn joined Murman in turning over none. All three officials said every single one of their text messages with Leytham was purely personal and not subject to 10 Investigates' public records requests. Similar exemptions were claimed regarding emails requested from personal accounts.

"If it's not about city business, than it's not subject to your questions," Buckhorn said in August, regarding his email and text communications with Leytham. "You've been through the emails; you know every conversation we've had about city business."

The City of Tampa also failed to produce a single text message between Leytham and several other high-level employees, including city and police department communications staffers, whom Leytham frequently worked with on strategic messaging.

Leytham said she sends text messages to public officials but doesn't keep a copy of them herself.

"It's not a consistent method of communication for me," she said in August. "Sometimes I will initiate (text message conversations) but it's not my 'go-to' way of doing business."

Yet it was the unsolicited text messages Leytham sent Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill that raised enough concern about her public relations work on Go Hillsborough that the sheriff's office is investigating and the entire transportation expansion effort is in jeopardy.

Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, says Leytham and elected officials alike may be running afoul of state law.

"If government officials are going to use their personal communication devices or private email accounts to conduct public business," Petersen said, "they must be fully aware that all communications relating to public business are public records subject to disclosure and retention requirements. Oversight and accountability are the keystones to our open government laws.

"To paraphrase Attorney General Pam Bondi, access to public records is not up to the whim of public officials — it is an enforceable right of the people. Our elected officials, and those who work on their behalf, have to remember that they have a legal duty to produce all records related to public business pursuant to a request for such records."

Following records requests to Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa in June, July, and August for public emails on personal accounts and devices, 10 Investigates submitted another records request to Hillsborough County on Sept. 4 for any new texts or emails between Leytham and any county commissioners. The county has computer software that can archive text messages from employees' phones, but it is not currently used by commissioners.

So despite Leytham's acknowledgement that she coordinated in August with Hagan and Murman regarding the WTSP investigation, the two commissioners once again claimed that no responsive records exist.

And until a judge or law enforcement compels the parties to turn over all records they claim are private – or since deleted – taxpayers won't know if any additional government-related communications exist.

Contents of the Emails

While many of the just-released emails from Murman and Hagan are mundane, some lend more credibility to the claims that Leytham blurs the lines between friend, political advisor, and unofficial lobbyist.

Although the county agreed to pay The Leytham Group $187,500 for working on the Go Hillsborough initiative, Leytham sometimes bypassed county staff and shared information, such as polling data on the project, directly with Hagan via his personal email account.

Hagan also forwarded Go Hillsborough-related emails from his work account to his personal account, where he would then communicate privately with Leytham regarding strategy.

On Oct. 7, 2015, Hagan was emailed a presentation from the county's auditor regarding options for an independent investigation into Go Hillsborough's procurement. He forwarded the presentation to his personal email account, and one minute later, forwarded it from his personal account to Leytham.

Hagan's personal account also produced emails with Leytham where her work on Go Hillsborough affected her private-sector clients, including developer Newland Communities. One Leytham email suggested the controversial ferry route proposed for Tampa Bay could potentially put two of her clients – the county and Newland – on opposite sides of the issue.

Leytham told 10 Investigates in August she isn't a political consultant, just a "political advisor" because she simply "pops in and out" of political activities. But even Hagan's county-related emails revealed numerous conversations he had with Leytham regarding his future political endeavors, including an email she sent him on March 12, 2015 with the subject line "another option" and a link in the body of the email to an article about Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden's plan to run for one more term before retiring in 2020. Hagan's commission term expires at the end of 2018.

Leytham also sent emails to Murman's personal account regarding political strategies, as well as a number of messages about Go Hillsborough. Leytham also helped write a Tampa Tribune op-ed for Murman and in April 2015, Murman asked Leytham to help write an official county proclamation to honor Mayor Buckhorn at his second Mayoral Inaugural Ball, hosted by the Economic Club of Tampa.

"I want it to be good for Bob," Murman wrote, adding her concern the hosts may not "do it right."

Other Public Records Red Flags

Leytham also handles strategic communications for the Tampa Housing Authority for a price of $5,000 per month. But a July 22 request for her THA-related text messages were rebuffed.

"Respectfully, I decline to provide you with that information," Leytham wrote in an email. "A court will have to compel me to give them to you."

The request was made to the Tampa Housing Authority as well, but agency spokeswoman Lillian Stringer said they don't retain text messages. She later said no records exist.

Florida State Statute 119.0701 requires contractors acting on behalf of public agencies to retain records for public inspection. Additionally, the courts ruled in the landmark City of St. Petersburg v. Romine case (Fla. 2d DCA 1998), "when there is any doubt, Florida's courts find in favor of disclosure."

Despite the ruling in Romine, Leytham insists the public records disclosures do not apply to her text messages. Her attorney, Robert Shimberg, wrote 10 Investigates a letter that read, "We have reviewed applicable Florida laws and local ordinances including those on ethics, lobbying, conflict of interest, procurement, and the Sunshine Law. Based on our review, Ms. Leytham has not violated any of the laws or ordinances in question, and further we do not believe that she is even subject to them. As you would imagine, Ms. Leytham is fully cooperating with the outside review and audit taking place."

Leytham made a similar claim when several citizens requested Go Hillsborough documents she had in her possession. It wasn't until 10 Investigates' Mike Deeson fought to have the records released that Leytham and the county ultimately obliged.

Leytham later said over the phone that she doesn't keep her text messages, saying the communications method "was not conducive" for her to do business.

During her most recent contract application to the THA, Leytham acknowledged her firm, The Leytham Group (TLG) handled many of the records for the public agency, which would typically subject her communications to the state's public records laws:

"In addition to representing the Tampa Housing Authority for the last 8 years, TLG public sector clients have and/or currently include the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority, Hillsborough County, Pinellas County and the Aviation Authority. On the private sector side, I consult with Newland Communities, Covanta Energy, Parsons Brinckerhoff, American Traffic Solutions, and AECOM, among others. Additionally, I handle strategic communications for Invision Tampa, the ongoing economic development and community engagement effort to revitalize downtown Tampa and its close-in neighborhoods, including the West River project that THA is leading…In fact, TLG also serves as the point and manager of extensive media and public information records requests from Channel 10 to THA."

Yet when 10 Investigates made another request to the THA on Sept. 19 for Leytham's text messages and emails related to agency business, Stringer responded in an email, "sorry but I can't compel her to reply to your request" and "I have no control over Ms. Leytham," despite the THA paying her $60,000 a year for public relations consulting.

While public record violations are common, legal actions related to them are rare. One exception was a 2014 investigation into Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority board members, which resulted in grand jury indictments but little discipline on records violations. The episode did, however, lead to the stunning defeat of the state house speaker-in-waiting, Chris Dorworth.

10 Investigates will continue to push for transparency from local agencies and officials.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:
10/7/15 - Hillsborough moves to save transportation expansion
10/1/15 - Tampa cancels out Leytham-related contract
9/29/15 - Buckhorn administration steered more work to Leytham
9/25/15 - Sheriff begins criminal investigation into Go Hillsborough
9/23/15 - 10 Investigates prompts major lobbyist reform proposal
9/23/15 - Times editorial says county needs to answer 10 Investigates questions
9/22/15 - Have Leytham connections doomed Go Hillsborough?
9/21/15 - County suspends contractor work on Go Hillsborough
9/17/15 - Tampa council rescinds Leytham-related contract
9/16/15 - Hillsborough Commission orders review after 10 Investigates story
9/15/15 - Hillsborough Co. fails to police lobbyists
9/14/15 - How a political consultant is calling the shots; and getting your tax dollars

Find 10 Investigates reporter Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips confidentially to npransky@wtsp.com.