TAMPA, Florida (Sept. 14, 2015) -- Documents obtained by 10Investigates detail how a senior political adviser to Mayor Bob Buckhorn and other local leaders is wielding influence behind-the-scenes of City of Tampa and Hillsborough County business, potentially in violation of local and state ethics laws. And the politicians she’s closest to – including several county commissioners - have allowed it.
The year-long investigation by 10Investigates WTSP, which included interviews with more than two dozen elected, municipal, community, and business leaders, questions the influence of public relations consultant Beth Leytham. Even before the first findings were published, news of the investigation made waves in Tampa Bay’s political circles.
Sam Rashid, a board member at the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, could step down after making sexist remarks about Leytham on Facebook. He has since removed the comment and apologized to Leytham, but he told the Tampa Bay Business Journal he won’t resign from his board position until after he sees what is contained in 10Investigates’ story. Political insiders learned of the ongoing investigation as 10Investigates conducted public interviews with reluctant officials.
Leytham is the owner of a successful public relations firm in Tampa but provides much more than just public relations advice. Local and national companies alike have retained her services to influence Tampa Bay-area politicians, newspaper editorial boards, and tens of millions of tax dollars that were awarded despite transparency questions by concerned citizens.
She also provides campaign-related services for politicians such as Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan. But according to local and state election disclosures, no elected official has reported paying her for political services in the last 15 years.
However, Leytham benefits from the relationships later, when the same politicians can play pivotal roles in landing her lucrative taxpayer-funded contracts. She can make hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single favor from a friend in office.
10Investigates The Gatekeeper to Tampa's Political Machine WTSP
Ultimately, the county was able to avoid a bid process by following the process Leytham laid out, leading to Parsons Brinckerhoff & The Leytham Group besting nine other firms for the pivotal “Go Hillsborough” project. The Leytham Group, whose only full-time employee is Leytham, secured a $187,500 share of the deal. It was approved by the county commission, including several members to whom Leytham provides free advice or services.The most recent controversial example has been the $1.35 million job to prepare Hillsborough County for a 2016 transportation and transit referendum. Text messages Leytham sent County Administrator Mike Merrill – obtained by 10Investigates through public records requests – could violate local and state laws by suggesting the county should steer the lucrative contract to an engineering firm similar to her client, Parsons Brinckerhoff.
UPDATE 9/21: City, county both suspend Go Hillsborough contracts
UPDATE 9/25: Sheriff launches criminal investigation
Since 10Investigates started asking questions about Leytham’s influence on Go Hillsborough and other local projects, both she and elected officials have pushed back. Mayor Buckhorn criticized 10Investigates’ questions as “fabricated stories” and scoffed at the notion that he would register Leytham’s volunteer campaign services, such as analysis and strategy, as “in-kind” donations.
“I have lots of volunteers,” Buckhorn said.
But records show Buckhorn and his staff kept Leytham close to his political dealings as well as his official city business. The mayor’s official calendar included routine meetings with Leytham throughout his first term in office, while his staff routinely communicated with Leytham on city business, from baseball stadiums to speech talking points to newspaper editors' contact information.
Leytham was also part of a team that won a controversial downtown planning engineering bid for more than a million dollars, and she frequently has business before agencies where Buckhorn either sits on – or appoints – the board of directors.
10Investigates also reported in July how Buckhorn passed on an opportunity to strike a better deal on the city’s red light camera contract. The camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions, is a client of Leytham. Soon thereafter, the company poured $10,000 into the mayor’s campaign coffer. Questions about Buckhorn’s involvement with Leytham were initially directed to Leytham, the mayor’s campaign spokesperson.
“She’s a friend and she offers good advice,” Buckhorn said, adding that she doesn’t get paid for giving her advice. “If there’s a need for her to weigh in on an issue, then I’m happy to have it, I take good advice from a lot of people…to infer that there’s something insidious…is just not true.”
Chapter 2: Damage Control Queen? Or Lobbyist? Or Political Consultant?
Mayor Bob Buckhorn takes issue with 10 Investigates' questions about the influence his friend/advisor plays in his official mayoral duties, as well as questions about why he doesn't publicly disclose the campaign services she provides. WTSP
“I don’t get, honestly, what is the big *expletive* deal about me?,” Leytham asked 10Investigates following the station’s first interview request on Aug. 17. “I’m a single parent. I live in Seminole Heights. My car is a 2008. It’s not like I’m living some lifestyle…I’m 5’2”. What the *expletive*?”
Associates and competitors alike complement Leytham’s success in the communications industry - a product of her experience, intelligence, and aggressive nature.
Interviews with more than two dozen elected, municipal, community, and business leaders - along with thousands of emails and public documents - paint a picture of a powerful behind-the-scenes dealmaker who uses her relationships – and the political equity she has built – to advance the interests of her friends and clients. However, those interests may not always be in the best interests of taxpayers, according to Stetson political science professor T. Wayne Bailey.
“It does not meet the smell test,” Bailey said.
BEHIND THE SCENES: The Gatekeeper Investigation
While Leytham was once dubbed the “Damage Control Queen” by a local publication for how she handled crisis management for embattled construction companies, there is also a lengthy list of public agencies that have hired her, such as the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, and Pinellas County. Just one consulting deal with the Tampa Housing Authority nets Leytham $60,000 a year for “strategic communications,” even though the agency already has a public communications officer.
But it’s Leytham’s advocacy on behalf of some clients that raises the most questions. While Leytham hasn’t filed lobbying disclosures since a 2013 visit to Hillsborough County government on behalf of client Yellow Cab, 10Investigates has documented recent instances where Leytham has lobbied officials on behalf of her clients – possibly even helping them avoid an open bid process. Yet Leytham says doesn’t lobby.
“I have a reputation as a good community steward,” Leytham said, adding that she when she reaches out to city, county, or elected officials, it is often only as a private citizen looking out for her community.
Leytham’s political influence is undeniable though, serving as campaign spokesperson for Commissioner Hagan, Mayor Buckhorn, and other friends who have run for office.
The Leytham Group listed “campaign management” as one of its communications techniques for many years before removing the phrase from its website in 2013, halfway through Buckhorn’s first term and as Hagan was gearing up for re-election. However, in 2015, public records indicate Leytham is still acting as Buckhorn’s campaign spokesperson, and the mayor confirmed she isn’t paid for the help.
It’s those close relationships – and the benefits that may come with them – that Bailey says could violate laws.
“That certainly is at odds with the both the spirit - and I think the letter - of both the local ethics rules and certainly the state ethics laws,” Bailey said.
Florida prohibits public officials and employees from accepting any gift or service of value from a lobbyist seeking business. Buckhorn said Leytham’s help is exempt from disclosure because it fits a narrowly-defined exemption for “campaign-related personal services,” which are allowed. But Bailey says that claim “defeats the intent of the law.”
“She is going far beyond just stuffing envelopes…it’s an issue that brings thunderclouds on a summer day,” Bailey said.
He added that individuals cannot simply take off their “political consultant” or “public relations” hats anytime they wants to speak to politicians about city or county business. But, like most ethics law issues, it’s not black-and-white.
Campaign finance expert Andrea Reilly, an attorney with Smith, Bryan and Myers in Tallahassee, agrees that potential ethics law violations are often open to interpretation. That also makes them very difficult to enforce.
“When we are talking about providing services, it is unclear whether those services would be considered gifts,” Reilly said. “To find a violation, the Florida Commission on Ethics would have to determine that the services provided are not campaign-related personal services.
“Of course, it is always illegal to give a public official a gift if it is based upon an understanding that the gift will influence a vote or official action of the public official,” Reilly said, referencing the state’s anti-bribery statutes.
Chapter 3: The Smoking Gun on Go Hillsborough
Leytham’s claim that she doesn’t lobby on behalf of her clients seems at-odds with a text message she sent Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill last year during the procurement of the county’s crucial transportation outreach project, now dubbed “Go Hillsborough.” The text was among the many messages 10Investigates obtained through Florida’s broad public records laws.
In the message to Merrill on Aug. 19, 2014 – one week after the Transportation Economic Development (TED) Policy Group agreed to hire an engineering firm to conduct the public outreach and planning ahead of a possible referendum – Leytham lays out a process that could be used to steer the important job to a specific engineering & public relations team, like her longtime client, Parsons Brinckerhoff:
"I have spoken w ken and sandy re transpo and communications. Mercury is Ashley walker ... 2 time Obama in Florida organizer and Adam is republican operative/political tv guy .... Expressed my real concern that all are political people/firms and county may not use public dollars (and even if you say something otherwise, it starts everything off on yet another bad foot.) That is why transpo expert comes in with communications team in tow funded by county, and after engagement hands off to political team in 2016 funded by private sector. Also, going to get into procurement issues too .... because just in city w aecom cost 1.2m ....
The first line of the text referenced conversations with commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandy Murman. Leytham then suggests other potential PR teams shouldn’t be considered for the job because of their political ties.
While Merrill appeared to have never responded to the text message, which he called “unsolicited,” the county ultimately followed the process Leytham laid out to award the contract to Parsons Brinckerhoff and avoid an open bid process.
The text expressed Leytham’s “concern that all are political people/firms and county may not use public dollars.” And she appears to suggest a PR firm like hers would be better-suited for the job, even though she is no stranger to local politics and has close ties to Kevin Thurman, the political consultant in charge of Connect Tampa Bay, the group expected to champion a county transit effort.
Leytham then suggests the job should go to an engineer “with communications team in tow funded by county,” then handing off the project to the private sector for campaign support.
She concluded with a warning that the county might need to dramatically increase its $500,000 budget for the project, referencing the recent City of Tampa master plan contract, also known as “Invision,” where Leytham teamed up with engineering firms AECOM and Parsons Brinckerhoff.
In the two weeks after Leytham sent that text message, Hillsborough County eliminated the nine other eligible engineering firms and direct-selected Parsons Brinckerhoff, with The Leytham Group “in tow,” to handle Go Hillsborough, following the process Leytham set out. Her firm’s haul from the contract is now up to $185,000.
Leytham told 10Investigates she wasn’t looking out for her client or herself; she was merely looking out for the community.
“That (text) is exactly what it is on its face,” she said. “It is a communications strategy and it is a recommendation and information.”
Leytham added that she didn’t reach out to commissioners Hagan and Murman; they reached out to her. But when approached by 10Investigates, the commissioners cast doubt on the claim.
Commissioner Murman said, “I don’t know why I would have called her about the process,” while Commissioner Hagan said he didn’t remember ever speaking to Leytham about the process of circumventing an open bid or choosing Parsons Brinckerhoff.
While Merrill says he wasn’t part of the procurement process, the county followed the state’s Consultants’ Competitive Negotiation Act (CCNA) in choosing Parsons Brinckerhoff. The CCNA requires a municipality to consider at least three bidders on any project and a Hillsborough County review of the procurement detailed how the county chose the Parsons/Leytham team within the constraints of the law.
Yet Leytham wasn’t the first one to pave the way for Parsons to land the work; a week before she sent Merrill the Aug. 19, 2014 text, Commissioner Murman got the Transportation Economic Development (TED) Policy Group on-board with the idea of hiring an engineer for the now-$1.35 million contract job.
“When you do a branding campaign, (bringing in) someone who is an expert in transportation (will) allow us to do this people-centric proposal,” Murman said, in-between glances at her notes. “Kind of like the people that did the Invision campaign for the mayor.”
Murman never mentioned Parsons Brinckerhoff or Leytham, but went on to herald the job the team did on Tampa’s downtown master plan. The TED also voted that contractor should have experience with a successful national referendum campaign and not be busy with other projects. Those mandates helped the county eliminate Parsons’ competition. Murman told 10Investigates she wasn’t trying to do Leytham any favors.
“I did not know who Parsons was going to partner with,” Murman told 10Investigates this August. “We gave the bid to Parsons and they subcontracted it (to Leytham). They were following the rules.”
But Parsons Brinckerhoff and Leytham have a long history of working together.
WATCH Commissioner Murman explains her relationship with Leytham WTSP
Other voting members of the Transportation Economic Development Policy Group include the rest of the Hillsborough County Commission, the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace, and Plant City, as well as Tampa City Councilmember Mike Suarez. Hillsborough County election records show four of the officials received campaign contributions from Parsons Brinckerhoff afterward.
“If (Leytham), who is in-effect a lobbyist, would register and disclose her interest," said Bailey, the longtime political science professor at Stetson, "it would probably make many of us more comfortable with the circumstances. One of the best deterrents in government is transparency and full disclosure.”
Bailey also said if Leytham was coordinating with two county commissioners ahead of a vote, it could violate state Government in the Sunshine laws.
Critics of Go Hillsborough have expressed concern the process is already too political, despite Leytham’s suggestion over text to avoid politicized PR firms. Leytham has close ties to Connect Tampa Bay, the nonprofit expected to campaign for a Hillsborough County transportation referendum in 2016. Connect Tampa Bay initially created the “Go Hillsborough” campaign earlier in 2014 before handing it over to the county.
“When you’ve got these close-knit relationships…the taxpayers must be protected,” said local activist and light rail opponent, Sharon Calvert. “At the very least, there’s ethical issues. And at the most, there’s legal issues.”
Merrill says he doesn’t know if Leytham played a role in Parsons’ selection. He says he “didn’t even know Beth Leytham” when she sent her unsolicited text message on Aug. 19, 2014. And while public records show Merrill seldom responded to Leytham – he even had her name spelled wrong in his phone – they also show he had a rapport with Leytham prior to the Go Hillsborough procurement.
On Aug 13, 2014, one day after the TED group voted to hire an engineering firm for the transportation project, Leytham texted Merrill, “Have you called both editorial board writers today? If no, I strongly suggest a call to Hill. Wait on Guidry if you can so he can clean up after Hill who is still bent out of shape. (This is Beth staying out of your sandbox. ; ) )”
Leytham was referencing Joe Guidry, the Opinion Editor at the Tampa Tribune, and John Hill, an editorial writer at the Tampa Bay Times.
Merrill replied, “Thanks Beth. One big sandbox :>”
But despite some bumps in the road, Merrill says he believes in the county’s referendum process, as well as the experts chosen for the vital job.
“This is the the most aggressive public outreach campaign that I've seen in 30 years that I've been here…and part of it is it hiring people who know how to manage public outreach,” Merrill said. “I believe that we not only complied with the letter, but we complied with the spirit of (the law).”
Chapter 4: The Soaring Price of Go Hillsborough
The last sentence in Leytham’s text to Merrill on Aug. 19, 2014 indicated she knew the planning for Go Hillsborough would likely cost $1.2 million, based on a recent City of Tampa project she worked on with engineering firms Parsons Brinckerhoff and AECOM. But the project was initially budgeted for only $500,000.
“Also, going to get into procurement issues too,” Leytham texted Merrill prior to her team landing the work.
After the county awarded Parsons Brinckerhoff and The Leytham Group with the contract, the scale of the public outreach kept growing. In October 2014, Merrill asked to expand the initial $498,491 work order by $400,000. Then, in June 2015, he expanded it again himself by another $350,000. Because no bid went out for the project, the county never knew if the now-$1.35 million job could have been done at a lower price by a comparable firm.
Text messages Leytham sent Deputy County Administrator Lucia Garsys suggest the county was already facing questions about the lack of a bid on the job within weeks of its awarding in September. The initial work order was for just $52,234.
But while the county commission approved the first few increases in the project’s cost, the most recent increase – the $350,000 for more public meetings – was never voted on by the county commission. County administrator Mike Merrill has the authority to sign off on work orders up to $250,000, so the deal was fast-tracked by getting taxpayers in the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City, as well as the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority to foot the final $100,000.
Merrill says the cost of the outreach won’t climb a penny above the current $1.35 million figure, but numerous county commissioners told 10Investigates they think the number is already too big. Tampa City Councilmember Mike Suarez is among the TED group members who have publicly complained about the procurement process.
“We spent too much money on this engagement,” added county commissioner Ken Hagan. “Much of it was necessary, but now it’s time to take it in for a landing.”
WATCH Commissioner Hagan explains his relationship with Leytham WTSP
Transit supporters, such as Connect Tampa Bay Executive Director Kevin Thurman – a close ally of Leytham – say the county’s cost for public outreach has been small in the grand scheme of a transportation initiative that could pay for $4 billion to $7 billion in infrastructure improvements.
"Planning and outreach costs money and it is critical to building a transportation plan people want,” Thurman said via e-mail. “We have $15 billion in unfunded transportation projects and the county needs to make the priority list a fraction of that size. Spending .0009% of that to plan and get the public's input is not wasteful. Not spending some funding to plan and engage with the public in the process would be bad government.”
Thurman added that Go Hillsborough has been economical compared to the $7 million Pinellas County spent on a similar, but different outreach & planning effort ahead of its failed Greenlight Pinellas referendum.
Chapter 5: The Keys to Tampa City Hall
Leytham provided significant guidance to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn during his successful 2011 run for office, but only as an “unpaid adviser.” Since then, she has continued to serve as his unpaid political spokesperson. Public records reveal the mayor’s former communication director, Ali Glisson, would routinely forward campaign-related questions and e-mails to Leytham.
Leytham also frequently communicated with city employees regarding city business, from talking points on speeches to handling controversial subjects. On a number of instances, Glisson blind-copied Leytham on e-mails regarding city business.
And Leytham’s ties to the mayor were so well-known that when USF needed a letter of recommendation from the mayor for a proposed new foreign program, administrators asked Leytham – not the mayor or his staffers – to facilitate.
One former board member of a Tampa-area agency, where Buckhorn also served as a board member, told 10Investigates that Leytham frequently “did the bidding” of the mayor and worked with agency staffers to promote his agenda.
One of the texts Leytham sent Merrill in September 2014 simply said, “Mayor on agrees w county perspective,” although it wasn’t clear which issue she was referencing.
Another political veteran identified Leytham as “the gatekeeper to doing business in the city of Tampa or Hillsborough County,” given her close ties to Hagan and Buckhorn, as well as with the two local daily newspapers.
In 2011, Leytham teamed up with engineers Parsons Brinckerhoff and AECOM to land a lucrative contract on the city’s downtown master plan, later named “Invision.” Public records show five city reviewers narrowed 10 competing bids down to three finalists. And even though the AECOM/Parsons/Leytham team had neither the highest average score nor the most Top-3 selections from reviewers, it was awarded the bid following interviews.
10Investigates also raised questions this summer regarding whether the city passed on an opportunity to lower the cost of its red light cameras. The city’s current camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions, is a client of Leytham.
UPDATE 9/28: Buckhorn administration steered more work to Leytham
Buckhorn also sat on the board of the Aviation Authority when the agency outsourced Leytham to manage strategic communications in 2011.
He was a voting member of the Transportation Economic Development Policy Group, which helped Leytham land the Go Hillsborough project in 2014.
And Buckhorn appointed many of the directors on the Tampa Housing Authority, who have increased their use of Leytham’s services dramatically since 2011. Agency records show The Leytham Group collected $76,841 in 2014 for “strategic communications” – nearly double what she was making off her contract with the agency when Buckhorn was elected.
But Buckhorn says Leytham is simply one of many volunteers in his campaign organization and therefore, state law wouldn’t require him to disclose it as an “in-kind” donation.
“She is not my political consultant,” Buckhorn said. “She’s (also) not a lobbyist. And if she were to lobby, she would register.”
July 2015: Buckhorn defends cash from red light camera vendor
May 2013: Buckhorn resists longer yellow lights
Leytham points to the contracts she had with local agencies, including the Tampa Housing Authority, before Buckhorn was elected.
“Before Mayor Buckhorn was mayor, I had a very successful practice. And I will have a very successful practice when he isn’t.
Part 1: Interview with consultant Beth Leytham WTSP
WATCH: Full interview with consultant Beth Leytham - Pt. 2 WTSP
Part 3: Interview with consultant Beth Leytham WTSP
Chapter 6: Public Records
Mayor Buckhorn was among several local officials who claimed questionable exemptions in response to 10Investigates' records requests for public emails and text messages related to government business.
Florida’s “Sunshine” laws, compiled in FSS 119 and FSS 286.011, consider elected officials' emails and text messages – even on personal devices or addresses – public record if they pertain to government business. State law also requires the communications to be preserved and produced upon request for any individual who requests them.
But Buckhorn said “no records exist” when 10Investigates requested those messages sent to – or received from – Leytham.
A public official’s compliance with Sunshine laws on private emails and devices is generally on the honor system. If a public official or employee says a document doesn’t exist, the public generally has to trust him or her. However, a judge could force an official to turn over documents, or conduct an “in-camera” inspection, where he or she may look at the official’s phone or email accounts to see if any public records were not turned over.
Commissioners Murman and Hagan also indicated “no records exist” when 10Investigates requested their text messages and personal email exchanges with Leytham. However, the dozens of texts provided by other commissioners and county staff members show Leytham is no stranger to communicating via text message.
“Sometimes I will initiate (communication over text) but it's not my most consistent (method),” Leytham said. “It's not my ‘go-to’ way of doing business.”
Commissioners Victor Crist and Kevin Beckner, along with employees Merrill and Garsys all turned over text messages from Leytham regarding county business. But the two commissioners she is arguably closest to – Murman and Hagan – did not.
“I don’t do anything on text (regarding) county business with anybody,” Murman said, adding that the few text messages she may send or receive are always personal in nature.
Hagan echoed Murman’s response, saying none of his texts with Leytham had to do with county business, “only personal business.”
“The request was for responsive text messages,” Hagan said. “And there were no responsive text messages that comply with your request.”
Leytham admitted to advising Murman and Hagan on how to respond to 10Investigates’ questions, but deferred additional questions about the text messages back to the commissioners.
Buckhorn also said his texts with Leytham were purely personal in nature, and therefore, exempt from public records inspection.
“There’s not any available,” he told 10Investigates. “What’s private and personal remains private and personal. If it’s not about city business, than it’s not subject to your questions.”
Buckhorn added that every written communication he’s had with Leytham regarding city business in recent years has been turned over to 10Investigates. The provided records included only about a dozen Buckhorn email chains and zero text messages.
“It’s on the city record,” Buckhorn said of his communications with Leytham. “You’ve been through 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 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 e-mail. “A court will have to compel me to give them to you.”
The request was made to the Tampa Housing Authority as well, but an agency spokesperson 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.
Leytham made a similar claim when several citizens requested Go Hillsborough documents she had in her possession. It wasn’t until 10Investigates’ 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.
Barbara Peterson, President of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, says Leytham, and potentially the elected officials too, appear to be violating state law.
“I find it disturbing that Ms. Leytham has refused to provide records relating to her work with the Tampa Housing Authority, basically saying, ‘if you want the public records, you’ll have to sue me,’” Peterson said. “Lawsuits are expensive, both in terms of time and money. We have a constitutional right of access to all of Ms. Leytham’s records relating to the THA, and she has both a legal and moral duty to provide access to those records in response to a public record request.
“Florida’s Supreme Court has said that a public record is ‘anything intended to perpetuate, communicate, or formalize knowledge’ having to do with public business. The form of the record — whether it’s a letter, an email, a text message — is irrelevant, as is the fact that the public record was sent or received on a personal communication device or a personal email account.”
Florida’s Sunshine laws give the governor the authority to remove public officials who "knowingly violate" FSS 119. Of course, Governor Rick Scott is no stranger to public records controversy himself.
Chapter 7: Lack of Lobbying Enforcement
Both Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa have rules requiring most individuals to register as a lobbyist if they meet with officials or employees in search of support on a project they could benefit from.
While Leytham registered a lobbyist for Yellow Cab in 2013, she hasn’t registered in either the city or county since then, despite the text message to Merrill that suggested she spoke to at least two commissioners about the process that ultimately helped her win $185,000 of work from the county.
Commissioner Victor Crist also turned over 28 public text messages he exchanged with Leytham. Among the issues they discussed: Hillsborough County’s Uber vs. taxicab battle and Leytham’s support for Hagan’s projects.
“Nice showboating today…we always put you in the no column anyway but way to own your brand!” Leytham wrote Crist in one text following a contentious commission meeting where he sparred with Commissioner Hagan over sports complexes.
Leytham attributed the text to her friendship with Crist and a request he made for her to provide tough feedback. She tells 10Investigates the "we" in her text was not referring to Commissioner Hagan, but her firm, The Leytham Group. Communicating with an elected official on behalf of another member of the same board potentially violates the state’s Sunshine laws.
UPDATE 9/23: 10 Investigates prompts Hillsborough lobby overhaul
UPDATE 9/28: Tampa also wants lobbying reforms
Leytham represents a number of clients with business before the county, including Parsons Brinckerhoff, developer Newland Communities, and the developer of the Bass Pro Shops complex in Brandon. In 2013, Commissioner Hagan helped the developer of the Bass Pro Shops complex secure a controversial $6 million county subsidy for road improvements. A check of Hagan’s county email account showed him forwarding emails to Leytham from supportive constituents.
But despite the many questions about Leytham’s interactions with county commissioners and staff, few officials in Hillsborough County or the city of Tampa have taken an interest in investigating possible violations in lobbying ordinances.
“We aren’t the lobby police,” Merrill told 10Investigates. “It's not my responsibility to tell anybody that they need to register. It’s clear in the statute it is the responsibility of the party who is approaching me or commissioners to decide if they are a lobbyist. If they make the wrong decision, they're subject to whatever discipline there is.”
According to the Hillsborough County Clerk’s website, a first violation of the ordinance “shall result in the issuance of a warning by the County Attorney's Office. Each subsequent violation shall be punishable by a fine not to exceed $500.”
But the county attorney’s office hadn’t issued a single warning in the last five years. So it’s not clear who is Hillsborough County’s “lobby police.”
“As the commissioner who championed and re-wrote (the lobbying ordinances) to tighten that up, it’s very frustrating,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham. “In the beginning, it worked well, and then folks started finding loopholes to work around it.”
Bailey said Leytham’s close ties to elected officials and government business “undermines public confidence…it is certainly a gray area.”
“My hunch is if you can demonstrate that you're very influential (and) you have access to public officials, the value of your service (increases),” said Bailey. “If I were a new corporate entity coming into Tampa, it sounds as if she's someone I would want to know and discuss her ability to move my proposal with officials who would be making those decisions.”
In addition to an interview and multiple on-the-record conversations with 10Investigates, Leytham provided a short statement that read, “The Leytham Group is a successful, ethical public affairs practice that recognizes that personal attacks and mudslinging too often pass for news and public debate. We handle controversial and potentially controversial issues, and will always do the right thing for our community and our clients even in the face of innuendo and inaccuracy.”
Chapter 8: Follow the Money
According to local and state election disclosures, no politician or campaign has reported paying Leytham for political services in the last 15 years. In 2000, Sandy Murman paid Leytham $1400 for “contract labor” during her campaign for the state legislature.
But Leytham is an active donor to political campaigns, totaling more than $20,000 in personal and business contributions in Hillsborough County alone. That included contributions to Ken Hagan’s county commission campaigns in 2009 and 2013, as well as Sandy Murman’s in 2011.
Murman also collected numerous campaign checks in July 2015 from Leytham clients Parsons Brinckerhoff and Yellow Cab, as well as Leytham’s attorney, Steve Anderson.
Hagan has received contributions from Parsons Brinckerhoff, Parsons Brinckerhoff’s vice president George Walton, and the marketing firm Leytham frequently works with, ChappelRoberts.
Just in 2014, Buckhorn received campaign cash from Parsons Brinckerhoff, Steve Anderson, ChappelRoberts, and ChappelRoberts’ founder, Colleen Chappel.
And in 2015, Buckhorn’s political action committee received $5,000 from Parsons Brinckerhoff, $1,000 from ChappelRoberts, $500 from Colleen Chappel, and $10,000 from Leytham’s client, American Traffic Solutions.
“I contribute to campaigns. I get to. U-S-of-A, baby,” proclaimed Leytham, noting there was nothing illegal about her contributions.
BEHIND THE SCENES: What it took to get Leytham on-camera
When asked why she doesn’t consider herself a political consultant despite offering so much guidance in local political races, Leytham said the amount of work she does is insignificant.
“I don’t like campaigns,” Leytham said. “Something may click in my head, ‘hey, here's a thought’ - but I'm not coming to (politicians) like they're my clients and analyzing things and going through documents.”
“I don't view it as a service… I just pop in and out,” Leytham said.
Chapter 9: Pushback Queen
In previous bids to local agencies for her services, Leytham frequently touts her “pushback” skills, including her ability to garner “supportive opinion pieces” published in local newspapers. The text messages she sent Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill last year reflect her strategy of influencing editorial boards. Reaching out to elected officials regarding business items is prohibited without registering as a lobbyist. But soliciting editorial boards is not.
And when it comes to pushing back against 10Investigates’ story about her questionable activities, Leytham employed several tactics, including an expletive-filled criticism directed at 10 Investigates that asked, “What is the big *expletive* deal about me?”
Leytham also tried numerous pre-emptive explanations for what she thought were documents at the center of 10Investigates’ report. Several times, following WTSP records requests to local offices or agencies, public employees immediately alerted Leytham too so she could review and respond preemptively.
And when a member of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, Sam Rashid, made sexist remarks about Leytham in a Facebook comment, Leytham and Kevin Thurman from Connect Tampa Bay repeatedly tried to tie 10Investigates to the story.
Rashid was not one of 10Investigates’ more than two dozen sources for this series, nor did WTSP communicate with Rashid during the research or writing of this investigation. Rashid has since removed his comment and apologized to Leytham, but as news of the investigation spread through Tampa-area political circles, Rashid told the Tampa Bay Business Journal he won’t resign from his board position until after 10Investigates’ story is published.
Despite repeated assurances that there was no WTSP/Rashid relationship whatsoever, Thurman tried to “withdraw” a quote he provided until it was explained to him if Rashid was a source for the 10Investigates report. Leytham sent numerous text messages, e-mails, and voicemail messages to media outlets in Tampa Bay suggesting the upcoming investigation had no credibility because Rashid was awaiting it.
WTSP condemns sexist and derogatory remarks. But 10Investigates had no relationship with Rashid and will continue to ask tough questions regarding how tax dollars are spent.