10Investigates prompts commission ethics tussle

Hillsborough ethics debate

TAMPA, FloridaFollowing a 10 Investigates story exposing the failure by Hillsborough County commissioners to turn over public records related to controversial consultant Beth Leytham, the commission voted to strengthen its public records policies and training to avoid future embarrassments and possible violations of the law.

 

Commissioner Ken Hagan, who 10 Investigates revealed routinely used his personal email address to conduct government business, asked the county attorney to craft a tighter ordinance and process to ensure the county was "consistent, transparent, and comprehensive" in responding to public records requests. The board will also consider becoming the first county in the state to require more mandatory ethics training for officials, supplementing the four hours required by the state.

However, some commissioners criticized the extra training requirements - possibly four, six, or eight hours annually - as unnecessary.

"We were all taught right from wrong by our parents," said Commissioner Stacy White. "With all due respect, four more hours...is not going to make a single member of this board a more ethical person."

MORE: Read the new proposal to solve the counties transportation crisis

"I'm being penalized for someone else's lack of knowledge about what the ethics laws are," added Commissioner Victor Crist.

But Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who has helped push for several revamps of the county's lobbying ordinances - including after 10 Investigates revealed the county wasn't enforcing it - said required training at a public event would be an improvement over the state's "honor system" training requirement.

"The four hours we do now are a joke," Higginbotham said. "The responsibility [of disclosing public records] falls upon those of us who have been entrusted through votes by the public...we [need to be] held to a higher standard."

Since 10 Investigates' story into Leytham's behind-the-scenes influences at the County Center and Tampa's City Hall, Hillsborough County officials have been inundated with new public records requests - approximately three times as many as in the same time period last year.

Hagan said the influx of records requests demands a better process from county staff to track and respond to requests. He also asked the county attorney's office to research retention programs on text messages to ensure public documents are not deleted.

"We owe it to the public to be as transparent as possible," Hagan said during the meeting. He was unavailable for comment afterward, disappearing through a back exit just seconds after the meeting adjourned.

Wednesday's debate was prompted by last week's investigation, where Hagan blamed his legislative aides and county staff for failing to properly inform him of 10 Investigates' multiple requests for emails pursuant to disclosure, in accordance with Florida's Sunshine Laws. Failures to provide public documents are punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $1,000 fine – but seldom are.

And even though it took the threat of a lawsuit against Leytham for Hagan to turn over 85 email exchanges between the two individuals, the commissioner maintains he only provided the records in an abundance of transparency since he didn't think the records qualify as public record.

READ: Emails Ken Hagan sent from personal account that he says aren't public records

Hagan's claim was refuted by Barbara Petersen, President of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, who said "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."

While Hagan remained defiant, commission chairwoman Sandy Murman was reticent in an apology to 10 Investigates for failing to properly provide the public emails she stored on her private email account.

The 27 email exchanges with Leytham she released from her private email account demonstrate how frequently she, like Hagan, uses her personal email to discuss public business. Both Murman and Hagan would forward messages from their county email accounts to their personal accounts, before communicating with Leytham about them.

Using private email addresses to conduct public business isn't inherently unethical or illegal, but it makes it harder for citizens to know their public records requests are getting fulfilled properly since the production of the records is left up to the honor and judgement of the official, not legal or public records experts.

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

Florida's public record laws also tasks elected officials to provide government-related text messages upon request, but neither Hagan nor Murman have produced the Leytham-realted text messages that 10 Investigates has been requesting since July. Murman said the texts "don't exist" anymore, while Hagan maintains none of their communications are subject to public disclosure.

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.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:
10/26/15 - 10 Investigates 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 - 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.


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