(UPDATED with responses from Kyle Cockream).
When Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission Executive Director Kyle Cockream appeared in front of the Palm Beach County Commission on a ridesharing ordinance it was reviewing last April, some state lawmakers and officials with Uber questioned his visit, saying it had the appearance of taking sides in the now two-and-a-half year battle between the taxicab industry and the ridesharing companies in Hillsborough County.
Cockream said at the time he was in West Palm Beach for four days “on personal business” — but emails recently reviewed by SaintPetersBlog reveal he had been communicating with taxicab officials for a full week in advance of that meeting.
Cockream testified in front of the Palm Beach County Commission April 5. He was photographed sitting next to Louis Minardi, the president of Yellow Cab in Tampa. Minardi has hired attorneys to oppose PTC attempts to introduce regulations to legalize ridesharing.
But Cockream denied at the time that he was with Minardi.
“I was not there with Lou,” he said.
However, a review of Cockream’s emails in the week before his appearance in front of the Palm Beach County Commission show he shared exchanges with Minardi, Brock Rosayn, who runs Metro Taxi in Palm Beach County, and Ellyn Bogdanoff, a former state legislator and now a lobbyist with the taxicab industry in Palm Beach County.
SPB also learned it was not the first time Cockream appeared before the Palm Beach County Commission.
He also spoke in front that board July 21, 2015, when he criticized Uber for its reluctance to engage in Level II background checks — which continues to be an issue in Hillsborough County. Minardi and Rosayn spoke immediately after him at that meeting. And while Cockream has said he was on his own personal time when he spoke before the Palm Beach Commissioners in April, it appears his 2015 meeting could have been on PTC time.
On April 11 of this year, a week after his second appearance before the Palm Beach County Commission where he identified himself as executive director of the PTC, Cockream wrote to a county staffer that he needed to make an adjustment on his Kronos account. Kronos is a electronic timekeeping system to monitor employee records.
“I recently noticed on July 21, 2015, I was off and and my Kronos apparently does not reflect that. How do I submit a change form?” he requested to Deborah Mingo in an email entitled, “Kronos Adjustment.”
“This request, made in April, was tied to a review I did of 2015 work time, to ensure that everything was properly documented,” Cockream says. “In that process, I found that one day was incorrectly notated, so I requested that the day be moved from PTC to personal time. I did this via email to ensure transparency.”
After SPB and WFLA-TV reported on Cockream’s appearance in Palm Beach County in April, he suddenly announced he would be resigning from the agency in July, but has subsequently said he would step down at the end of this year. At last month’s PTC meeting, however, he said he would stay on until March 2018.
On Friday, Hillsborough County Commission Chair Victor Crist said PTC attorneys last week went through a batch of emails and discovered a number of troubling issues.
One set of issues was the report in Friday’s Tampa Bay Times that revealed Cockream had been coordinating with local taxicab and limousine firms to conduct sting operations against Uber and Lyft drivers. Another was the visit to Palm Beach County Commissioners.
At the time of that appearance in Palm Beach County, Crist told SPB Cockream “just basically told me that he was down there for a few days with family, visiting friends, got a phone call from one of his colleagues who’s a regulator, asking him his opinion on some things, found out that he was in Fort Lauderdale, and invited him to the meeting, so he went.”
Crist said Friday the release of the emails reveal he had been misinformed by Cockream.
“It was shocking to me, it was embarrassing to me, and it was extremely concerning to me,” he said, adding that he wants to give Cockream a chance to explain what happened and why. He also wants to give PTC attorneys and consultants time to review what is appropriate and what proper recourse the PTC should take.
Crist says he would support a motion to launch an investigation, and says that will probably have to come up at the board’s next meeting scheduled for next month. That’s the same day the PTC board is scheduled to vote on a temporary operating agreement Uber has approved that would allow them continue to operate legally in the county. The board could reject that proposal and vote on a set of rules that include fingerprint-based background checks that Uber and Lyft oppose.
“If one thing has become clear in the past 24 hours, it’s that the PTC has consistently colluded with entrenched special interests at the expense of people who rely on ridesharing,” Uber spokesman Colin Tooze said. “Based on these recent revelations, the PTC owes the public a full and transparent accounting of how it conducts its operations and all conflicts of interest.”
The series of emails released last week shows Cockream had engaged in discussions about the Palm Beach County appearance for a full week. In an email exchange with Carol Vallee of Checker Leasing in St. Pete Beach on April 4, he wrote,”I’m headed to West Palm to speak to commission members today and Tuesday.”
On Friday, April 1, Rosayn forwarded an email to Cockream and Minardi headlined, “Uber info for meeting.”
On Tuesday, April 29, Cockream received an email from Minardi regarding an Associated Press story about Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport stepping up background checks for Uber drivers. That original email had also been sent to Ellyn Bogdanoff, a former state legislator turned lobbyist for the taxicab industry in Palm Beach County.
SaintPetersBlog reported in April a contact log for the 12th floor of the Palm Beach County government building for Monday, April 4, showed Cockream signing in, where he says he met with Commissioner Shelly Vana. The log showed later in the day that Bogdanoff signed in as well, where she said she was meeting with Commissioner Stephen Abrams.
Cockream says he did not meet with Bogdanoff. “She was in one or two of the rooms that I was in. She was speaking with council members. I did not meet her.”
When he came before Palm Beach County Commissioners, two of them – Mayor Mary Lou Berger and Commissioner Hal Valeche – asked why was the man who ran the Hillsborough County PTC doing at their discussion on ridesharing?
“Mr. Cockream, how did you come to be here today at this meeting? Did you just hear about it and decide to drive across the state?” asked Berger. Cockream said he was there to serve as a “resource,” and referred to his previous 29 years in law enforcement before becoming the PTC Chair. “I know about as much as fingerprinting … as anyone in this room.”
Berger also asked if he was to invited by the cab companies to appear before the commission. “More specifically, I was invited to speak by Mr. Rosayn.”
Commissioner Caleche then questioned why Cockream was weighing on a Palm Beach County ordinance.
“We’re conducting this like a trial, and Mr. Cockream is acting like an expert witness, and we’re relying on his testimony,” he told his board members.“We’re talking about the ordinance, not about what’s going on in Tampa and Hillsborough County, and let’s stick to the ordinance.”
Cockream responded via email on Friday night that,”My appearance at a Palm Beach County Commission meeting last spring was to share knowledge about rideshare regulatory issues, and to talk about fingerprint background checks, which are mandated by state law in Hillsborough,” he wrote. “My appearance was not planned far ahead of time. I was copied on several emails a few days before the meeting as part of general industry information-sharing, before I was requested to speak. The comments I made at the meeting were my own.”