HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Florida - An exhaustive review of a 1,974-page sheriff's investigation into the awarding of a "Go Hillsborough" contract to study transportation expansion reveals nuggets of new information that could fuel both the support and opposition for a fall transportation referendum.
As 10Investigates first reported Monday, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and State Attorney Mark Ober found no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing in how county staff, commissioners, and private consultant Beth Leytham acted in the months leading up to the selection of Leytham's client, Parsons Brinckerhoff, for the lucrative "Go Hillsborough" project.
But the report corroborates 10Investigates findings that Leytham made a habit of influencing decision-makers behind the scenes. And Ober suggested sanctions for Commissioner Sandy Murman - and training for other commissioners - over non-criminal public records violations.
The threshold for criminal charges is high, and because so many key text messages were deleted, there was no chance of examining the evidence.
Much of the lengthy report relied on the same documents that guided the 10Investigates series, but new records and analysis were included. While the report may give Go Hillsborough the clean bill of health county officials were hoping for ahead of a possible April 20 advancement of the fall referendum, a number of other findings raise other questions about government transparency.
THREE MOST EXONERATING FINDINGS
1) Mark Ober's letter
The state attorney, after reviewing the entire report, wrote Sheriff David Gee, "there is no evidence of official misconduct or improper influence in the procurement and selection process of Parsons Brinckerhoff. Similarly, the investigation revealed no violations of contingency fees laws or lobbying laws. There is no evidence of any violation of the Sunshine Law. And the evidence does not establish that any individual involved knowingly violated Florida’s public record laws.”
The unequivocal conclusion should disarm critics who suspected commissioners or Leytham of crossing the line into criminal activity.
"I think the sheriff's office did a great job and pointed out exactly what we said: that nothing occurred," said Buckhorn. "We knew from the beginning that (the transportation effort) really was going to be something the county was going to have to go to."
2) Full explanation of direct-select process
There had been questions about why Hillsborough County staffers neglected to put the million-dollar transportation outreach job out to bid. But numerous employees in the county's procurement and administrative offices gave thorough and convincing explanations of why the county didn't have the time to issue a full Request for Proposal (RFP) on the project.
While they were merely following commissioners' directions on the process, the county saved itself time - and possibly money - by choosing well-qualified Parsons Brinckerhoff for the project.
The decision, which some commissioners are now second-guessing, put the county in position to approve 2016 referendum language in late 2015. But the controversy over Leytham's involvement has now pushed the timetable back to April 20, 2016 - a tight squeeze for a campaign with any chance of passing.
"The needs haven't gone away," Buckhorn said Tuesday. "This investigation doesn't negate that at all, so hopefully we'll have the ability to move forward."
3) Sanctions for Sandy
Commissioner Murman bore the brunt of Ober's criticism, for failing to preserve text messages. 10Investigates showed how she also failed to turn over county-related emails after privately acknowledging the request for them, but neither detectives nor Ober opined that the failure was intentional.
However, by suggesting sanctions for Murman, Ober supplied half-cent sales tax advocates with another reason to criticize the plan's newest - and biggest - opponent, thus taking heat off the referendum's political supporters.
THREE MOST DAMNING FINDINGS
1) Leytham’s contract & phone records
Although Ober didn’t think Leytham met the legal definition of a lobbyist, many of the documents released in the report suggest otherwise.
Her 2014 contract with longtime client Parsons Brinckerhoff (pg. 47-48 of linked HCSO report) spells out her duties, including “to develop and implement strategies to obtain prospective and/or targeted opportunities which may be available to Parsons Brinckerhoff within the Tampa Bay region,” and to provide “government relations services,” which is commonly referred to as lobbying.
So while investigators suggested her frequent private contacts with elected officials were not lobbying because she wasn’t actively pushing her client, she was receiving a $5,000 per month retainer fee from Parsons Brinckerhoff for various duties, which included lobbying.
When elected officials were asked by investigators, Murman said Leytham was definitely lobbying on behalf of Parsons. But both Hagan and Buckhorn denied the insinuation.
Hagan told detectives he was close friends with Leytham, but had no idea Parsons was a client of her clients. Phone records obtained by detectives show 52 calls between Leytham and Hagan during the month Hillsborough County chose Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Buckhorn said the Leytham/Parsons business relationship was common knowledge to him for at least six years, but he didn’t know his friend to be pushing her client at the time. Leytham made 15 calls to Buckhorn that same month.
In fact, an August 2014 timeline created by deputies showed frequent coordination and communication between Leytham, Murman, Buckhorn, and Parsons’ employees and contractors during the pivotal weeks Hillsborough County was making its decision on an engineering firm. The pattern raised detectives’ suspicions, but it didn't appear to cross legal boundaries in prosecutors' eyes.
Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill told detectives that Leytham never specifically mentioned Parsons to him, but he could tell she wanted in on the transportation work. In hindsight, he said her calls and texts were “clever positioning on her part.” But he also defended her style and work and suggested he would have chosen her again.
2) Detectives failed to get deleted text messages
Whether they didn’t try to get deleted text messages from phone providers – or they were just unable to – isn’t clear. But HCSO detectives never got their hands on text messages that might have provided conclusive evidence whether elected officials violated criminal statutes.
According to the sheriff’s report, investigators subpoenaed Leytham's cell phone records and "after seeing the pattern of communication specifically around the PB selection timeframe, Investigators attempted to obtain any deleted text messages from the cellphones of Ms. Leytham, Commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandra Murman, and Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Investigators asked each person if they still possessed the cellphone they used during the 2014 time period. All four advised they had upgraded their cellphones, and no longer possessed them. Commissioner Murman provided a receipt.
Murman was the only individual who appeared to have provided proof of a new iPhone, while others’ were taken at their word. Furthermore, there is no indication why text messages weren’t transferred from old iPhones to new ones via the iCloud. It doesn’t appear detectives pressed the issue with any of the individuals..
3) Mark Ober’s letter
The tone of Ober's letter may actually give anti-tax proponents more reason to question the investigation, as there wasn't even the slightest suggestion in the 12-page letter that the county's top prosecutor shared any of the same suspicions exhibited by detectives during questioning.
Ober seemed to definitively defend the actions of some politicians, even though they may not have turned over all of their public records. Additionally, the state continues to investigate ethical complaints against Murman, Hagan, and Buckhorn not covered under the scope of the HCSO investigation.
3/15/16 - Sheriff: public records deleted, but no criminal charges
1/5/16 - Hillsborough votes to improve lobbying & Sunshine oversight
12/29/15 - Sheriff wraps up Go Hillsborough investigation
12/16/15 - Taxpayers paying tab on commissioner, Buckhorn ethics cases
12/4/15 - State investigating Buckhorn, commissioners over ethics
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
10/27/15 – READ: Emails that Ken Hagan claimed were “private”
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