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Ethics panel finds “probable cause” with former PSTA employee, but takes no action

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Trieu Nguyen, assistant director of Information Technology at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) for much of his nine years at the agency, worked for a PSTA vendor and accepted reimbursement for travel expenses, the State of Florida Commission on Ethics found last week.

The commission also found probable cause that he misused his position to do the work and accept the expenses.

No further action will be taken by the commission, though, unless Nguyen requests a hearing.

He left the PSTA last November.

According to the report to the commission last month, Nguyen began working at PSTA’s help desk in 2005 and became friendly with Clive Newell, president of Fleet-Net, when they communicated to maintain PSTA’s computer system.

Fleet-Net is a Las Vegas-based company that provides public transit authorities with computer software packages that help organize aspects of equipment maintenance, operations and national transit database reporting equipment. They have worked with PSTA since the 1990s.

In the fall of 2010, Newell told Nguyen that Fleet-Net was planning to update its internal computer software program. Nguyen then immediately said that he’d be traveling to Nevada and California for an already-planned vacation, and that he could do assist with the installation of the software program. Newell said consented, and they agreed Fleet-Net would reimburse Nguyen for his efforts by paying for “a portion” of his travel expenses to Fleet-Net’s offices. He performed the work between Dec. 15 and 22, 2010.

Flash forward to the fall of 2014, when Sangita Land, PSTA’s chief compliance offer discovered an email “while reviewing computer records regarding another matter.” The email was from Nguyen to Newell with receipts for his rental car, hotel and computer anti-software package. However, Newell said that the anti-software was not part of the compensation.

Nguyen then acknowledged to PSTA officials that he had been compensated $910 in car rental and hotel reimbursement by Fleet-Net to perform computer security services for the Fleet-Net.

The ethics panel ruled that Nguyen violated Section 112.313(7)(a). That part of the state Code of Ethics “does not require any intentional, affirmative, corrupt or evil conduct by a public officer.” It is in fact, preventive, and is concerned with “what might happen.”

The commission also ruled that there was probable cause that Nguyen violated Section 112.313 (6), by performing work for a PSTA vendor and accepting reimbursement travel expenses from that vendor.

But the Commission dismissed an allegation with a finding of no probable cause that Nguyen accepted payment and reimbursement from the vendor when he knew or should have known that it was being given to influence his official action.

The report says Nguyen’s ranking at PSTA did not allow him the authority to make purchases on behalf of PSTA. Therefore, “it does appear that Newell would have conveyed in any manner to the Respondent that reimbursement was intended to influence any official action in which Respondent (Nguyen) participated.”

The original complaint against Nguyen was made by PSTA CEO Brad Miller in January.

The Florida Commission on Ethics met in closed session this past Friday, and issued a press release Wednesday regarding Nguyen’s case.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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