TAMPA, Florida – It all started with an erroneously-sent email. And the mistake was the fault of none other than the woman who later became the center of the more than 20-part investigative series: Beth Leytham, the gatekeeper to Tampa Bay’s political circles.
10Investigates’ reporting on the influence wielded by the controversial consultant played a pivotal role in the final months of 2015 in how Hillsborough County is trying to increase transportation investment. Ongoing investigations from the local sheriff’s office, state ethics commission, and even a U.S. Senator from Iowa continue into 2016. But the investigation actually began in March 2014, while WTSP was in the middle of its award-winning red light camera reporting.
Leytham, a longtime unpaid political adviser to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, gets paid by the city’s camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions (ATS), for public relations consulting. But when 10Investigates had challenging questions about whether the city was prioritizing profits over safety, Leytham was blind-copied on an e-mail response to 10Investigates. When she inadvertently “replied all,” it was the first indication of how immersed she was in Tampa’s public dealings.
“The more city and county ‘insiders’ we spoke to, the more it became clear this private consultant was calling the shots on a number of major public deals,” said investigative reporter Noah Pransky. “It was like ‘Fight Club.’ It was the worst-kept secret nobody wanted to talk about.”
But more than 20 interviews and thousands of public records helped lead 10Investigates to well-documented instances of Leytham communicating with friends in city and county leadership – including Mayor Buckhorn and county commissioners – about deals she would later profit on. Buckhorn told 10Investigates he didn’t give Leytham any preferential treatment, but documents later proved he helped steer work to her on at least one occasion.
The first story related to Leytham’s involvement in government dealings aired in July 2015, when 10Investigates exposed how her client, ATS, contributed $10,000 to Buckhorn’s political action committee. The donation came after the mayor declined to renegotiate the city’s expensive red light camera contract, even as revenues from the program were drying up.
Buckhorn declined multiple interview requests from 10Investigates, which had to approach the mayor following a summer press conference in order to get answers about the Leytham connections.
WTSP then took the unusual step of investing broadcast resources into an investigation that wasn’t primarily aimed at the broadcast viewer. That meant conducting dozens of off-camera interviews before recording the first frame of video; reporter Noah Pransky obtaining and reviewing thousands of public records; and the flagship story in the series focusing on the online audience first.
READ: More Gatekeeper Fallout
By the time the broadcast report aired at 11 p.m. on Sept 14, the 6,200-word article posted earlier in the day on WTSP.com was already making waves. Readers spent an average of 22 minutes reading and watching the extra materials on the longform page, compared to a 15-second average for other stories on the website that week.
The web experience was significantly different for readers than the broadcast experience was for viewers, with additional documents and citations allowing the audience to interact with the story in a way they could not through television. And in the name of transparency, the compelling uncut interviews with reluctant politicians – as well as Leytham – were included online too so nobody could accuse 10Investigates of taking comments out of context.
The Columbia Journalism Review heralded the extraordinary multi-platform effort, and many of the local officials who would later decide the fate of Leytham-related contracts spent hours reviewing all the investigative materials available online.
Tampa’s House of Cards
The 10Investigates series unlocked doors to the proverbial "smoke-filled back rooms” of Tampa’s political machine. And it wasn’t just a few rooms, but an entire house of cards, built through years of relationship-building and political king-making.
More than a thousand email and text message exchanges between Leytham and public officials - obtained through public records requests - revealed how active the consultant was with day-to-day government activities.
Some officials balked at the request for text messages and emails from their personal accounts, but Florida’s public records law maintains any records related to public business – regardless of medium – shall be provided upon request. 10Investigates won numerous battles throughout 2015 with governments and contractors who initially didn’t want to turn over public records.
In fact, some officials didn’t just try to obfuscate 10Investigates’ records-gathering process; they also tried to obfuscate the interview process.
Mayor Buckhorn, Hillsborough County commissioners Sandy Murman and Ken Hagan, and Leytham each refused multiple interview requests throughout August. But the elected officials’ calendars are public record, and after numerous requests, 10Investigates ultimately obtained the schedules and approached the officials at public appearances, where they would have to answer questions about Leytham’s influence on taxpayer expenditures. Those interviews were posted in their entirety on WTSP.com.
Some of the officials provided reasonable explanations about red flags 10Investigates had identified. But some of their responses proved to be fabrications or exaggerations that 10Investigates was able to categorically disprove.
Leytham’s schedule was not publicly available since she is not an elected official. She initially said she would consider the interview request if 10Investigates provided her every document it was citing in its investigation. But after an unprecedented show of transparency, where the news station provided Leytham hundreds of pages of records as well as specific findings that were to be included in the report, she declined the interview offer.
It wasn’t until 10Investigates knocked on the door of Leytham’s home in Tampa that she agreed to a sit-down interview in her office three days later. In that interview, which was also posted in its entirety on WTSP.com, Leytham acknowledged coordinating with Murman and Hagan on how to respond to 10Investigates.
Providing Leytham the documents and investigative findings prior to publishing wasn’t necessary, but it was the fair thing to do. It’s a fact she even mentioned at the end of the interview, telling reporter Noah Pransky, “you’ve been fair.”
Investigating the “Queen of Damage Control”
10Investigates also faced strategic challenges in preparing the report, as the main subject of the investigation, Leytham, was a public relations consultant once dubbed the “Damage Control Queen.” And she didn’t stop spinning the story when the camera stopped rolling on her interview.
For two weeks afterward, she tried to get ahead of the story, attempting to undermine the credibility of the impending report by speaking to other media outlets, community leaders, as well as WTSP management. She also utilized legal strategies in attempts to delay the report.
However, 10Investigates anticipated the pushback and had developed a pre-emptive plan weeks earlier in order to fend off attempts at undermining the investigation’s credibility.
Transparency was key; by providing all of the findings and documents to Leytham in August, as well as to WTSP.com’s audience in September, 10Investigates was able to stay the course and publish “The Gatekeeper” investigation as-expected on Sept. 14.
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