TAMPA, Florida -- The Florida Ethics Commission is now investigating complaints filed against Hillsborough County commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandy Murman, as well as Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, following a series of 10 Investigates reports into their relationships with controversial consultant Beth Leytham.
Leytham, a successful public relations consultant, had become the unofficial "gatekeeper" to the region's top politicians, but possibly in conflict with state ethics and elections laws. The 10Investigates reports shed light on how she blurred the lines between her public relations work – with some clients in the governmental sector – and her unpaid political work for the politicians who help award the contracts.
The ethics complaints, filed in October by three different citizens from Eastern Hillsborough County, quoted a number of 10Investigates findings related to how Leytham may have influenced the awarding of a county contract regarding the "Go Hillsborough" transportation initiative. The complaints also referenced the multiple failures to turn over public records requested by 10Investigates. In October, commissioners eventually turned over some public records they initially said didn't exist, although their deletion of text messages remains a concern to many watchdogs.
While the Florida Ethics Commission (FEC) has not yet indicated if there is probable cause for violations, it found sufficient evidence to investigate the accusations. It did not find sufficient evidence to investigate a complaint against Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill.
One of the citizens filing complaints was Dover resident George Niemann, who also filed an ethics complaint against Hagan in 2014 for failing to properly disclose his assets on the state's annual financial disclosure forms. Hagan admitted guilt in a plea deal with the FEC and paid a $2,000 fine, but suggested the most recent complaints were part of an effort to smear transportation expansion efforts.
"Anyone who objectively reviews the complaints will realize that they are not in the spirit of good government," Hagan said in an email to 10Investigates. "This is nothing but an attempt to prevent the public from voting on a transportation referendum, with intimidation and politics of personal destruction the preferred playbook. Candidly, I'm surprised it took this long for the complaints to be filed."
The county's plan to finalize 2016 referendum decisions this month has been delayed, pending a sheriff's office criminal investigation into the procurement of the Go Hillsborough outreach contract and Leytham's relationships with Hagan and Murman.
However, unlike Hagan, Murman did not aim to discredit the ethics complaints. Instead, she continued to put further distance between herself and Go Hillsborough, Hagan, and Leytham.
"The complaints were not unexpected," Murman said. "As chairman at the time, I saw that constituents are mad and concerned about the procurement process for our transportation plan and rightfully so. They are fed up with government, period. The anger raging in citizens about back-room deals is real and it will be up to the elected officials to change the way business is done at the government level to build trust."
"We must be held to the highest level of accountability and that is why I support the more ethics changes and I proposed lobbyists reforms to help make our system more transparent. Welcome to politics in 2015."
Mayor Buckhorn, in the nation's capital for a trade conference and the president's holiday reception, did not respond to a Thursday night request for comment.
In related news, Leytham registered as an official lobbyist in November, the first time in nearly two years she acknowledged she was approaching elected officials on behalf of her clients. She was lobbying Commissioner Victor Crist, the head of the county's Public Transportation Commission, on behalf of her client Yellow Cab.
12/1/15 - County attorney advises commissioners how to destroy records
11/10/15 - Iowa Senator takes notice of Leytham stories
11/5/15 - Go Hillsborough advances despite lingering suspicion
11/4/15 - 10Investigates prompts commission ethics tussle
10/26/15 - 10Investigates gets emails officials said didn't exist
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 - 10Investigates prompts major lobbyist reform proposal
9/23/15 - Times editorial says county needs to answer 10Investigates 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 10Investigates 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