Sheriff: Commissioners didn't break law; they just deleted public records

TAMPA, Florida – The Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office released its criminal investigation into the county’s “Go Hillsborough” initiative Monday, concluding elected officials broke no criminal laws in awarding a lucrative contract for transportation planning to the client of a well-connected political consultant.

However, the report corroborates 10Investigates findings that public records were inappropriately destroyed, and controversial consultant Beth Leytham was very involved with county staff and commissioners leading up to the hiring of her engineering firm client.  But because the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office (HCSO) found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, no charges will be filed.

A separate state ethics investigation, which also includes Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s involvement with Leytham, is also ongoing.

The investigations were direct results of a 10Investigates series exposing the cozy relationships that county commissioners and Buckhorn enjoyed with Leytham, a politically-connected public relations consultant.

Go Hillsborough is the county’s multi-year effort to expand transportation options and potentially raise the county’s sales tax to fund transit and road improvements.  But a million-dollar planning contract went to well-connected engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff and Leytham. 

In September, 10Investigates revealed Leytham appeared to have worked with county commissioners to lobby county staff on the deal prior to the hiring of Parsons Brinckerhoff.  The Go Hillsborough contract never went out to bid, and the amount of the deal quickly soared from $500,000 to $1.35 million.  Leytham’s PR firm, of which she is the only full-time employee, was due $187,500 in the deal before the 10Investigates story prompted city of Tampa councilmembers and Hillsborough County officials to terminate the deal several months early.

WATCH: How Beth Leytham became the gatekeeper to so many government offices

Soon after 10Investigates’ initial report, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill requested the sheriff’s office review the findings for any possible criminal violations related to Go Hillsborough.  He was seeking to “clear the air” of a dark cloud hovering over the county’s transportation expansion efforts.

But Monday’s announcement may not clear the air entirely, as State Attorney Mark Ober wrote Sheriff David Geein a letter that recommended Commissioner Sandy Murman attend public records training for "inadvertent" violations of the state law - a noncriminal offense.  He also wrote that several other commissioners failed to preserve public records.

Several weeks after 10Investigates’ initial investigation, commissioners Murman and Ken Hagan both admitted to deleting text messages that were likely considered public records.  County attorney Chip Fletcher provided cover, telling 10Investigates he didn’t think the commissioners needed to save them.  

Mayor Buckhorn also failed to turn over text messages with Leytham, suggesting his texts with her were purely personal in nature and had nothing to do with government business.

10Investigates also finally got some of the emails commissioners initially said didn’t exist.

However, in Ober's letter to Sheriff Gee Monday, he wrote, "the evidence does not establish that any individual involved knowingly violated Florida’s public record laws (and) there is no evidence of official misconduct or improper influence in the procurement and selection process."

"The investigation revealed no violations of contingency fees laws or lobbying laws," Ober added, and "there is no evidence of any violation of the Sunshine Law."

MORE: Full HCSO Go Hillsborough investigative report

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office obtained Leytham's phone records through a subpoena, but did not do the same for any of the elected officials.  It also doesn't appear the sheriff's office recovered any of the deleted text messages.

Buckhorn, Murman, Leytham, and Hagan all said they had replaced their cell phones in recent months and old text messages were gone. Only Murman provided actual proof of a phone replacement; the sheriff's report did not seem to inquire about whether the texts could have been preserved on the cloud.

However HCSO detectives used Leytham's call logs and other records to paint a picture of daily communications and frequent coordinations with Murman, Leytham, and county staff members during August 2014, when the county was awarding Parsons the lucrative contract.

Ober's letter also made virtually no mention of Hagan's communications with Leytham, who not only served as a county subcontractor but also as a campaign advisor.  Like Murman, Hagan failed to preserve records the state attorney suggested should have been preserved.

Murman reported Leytham lobbied her, but given the threshold to prove criminal wrongdoing, Ober wrote "the evidence does not prove that Beth Leytham was a lobbyist."

Ober's suggestion that Murman attend public records training in the next 180 days was the only mention of any recommended sanctions.  He acknowledged other commissioners deleted their text messages, but included few details in his letter to Sheriff Gee.

WATCH: How politicians reacted to 10Investigates' questions
READ: The story behind the Gatekeeper investigation

Meanwhile, Florida’s Commission on Ethics is moving forward with an investigation into possible violations of state ethics laws, after several citizens filed complaints against Hagan, Murman, and Buckhorn. Ober indicated in his Monday letter than neither he nor the HCSO reviewed any possible ethics violations.

While the politicians suggested the ethics complaints were just politically-motivated, the filings met the state’s high initial threshold for pursuing an investigation.  It could last several more months.

HCSO hired CPA William Blend of Moore Stephens and Lovelace, as well as former US Attorney Bobby O'Neill to assist in the review.  And despite O'Neill's friendship with Buckhorn, the sheriff's office has stood by the integrity of its investigation.

Commissioner Hagan was out of town Monday, while Commissioner Murman had not seen the report yet when contacted by 10Investigates.  Buckhorn's office did not make the mayor available for an interview Monday afternoon.

Leytham sent a statement via email that read, "I had no doubt whatsoever, and now three audits, the Sheriff and the State Attorney have officially confirmed:  I did not influence the selection of Parsons Brinckerhoff as the consultant on Go Hillsborough.  

"The reality is that personal attacks and mudslinging too often pass for news and public debate. That said, I will not run scared from sexists and bullies or their insinuations and lies. I’ll work hard, do the right thing -- and I look forward to voting YES for transportation in November."

10Investigates will continue to work this story, posting updates here throughout the day.

Go Hillsborough HCSO Investigation Report

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:
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

Find 10Investigates reporter Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips confidentially to npransky@wtsp.com.


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