Ethics complaints have been filed against Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandy Murman, alleging that they violated the state’s Sunshine laws in not releasing private emails related to the Go Hillsborough effort and public relations consultant Beth Leytham.
“We want honest accountable, transparent government, but right now in Hillsborough County, we don’t have it, and this is evident of that,” said George Niemann, one of three Hillsborough County residents who filed complaints with the Florida Commission on Ethics.
The controversy about Leytham’s involvement with Go Hillsborough came out in September. That’s when WTSP-Channel 10 reporter Noah Pransky reported on her close alliance with the three local lawmakers and how Parsons Brinckerhoff became contractor for the Go Hillsborough effort — and subsequently hired Leytham as a subcontractor. Go Hillsborough is the county transportation plan that could possibly result in the county voting next year on a half-cent sales tax for transportation.
A subsequent report by Pransky in late October showed Hagan and Murman had failed to turn over private emails regarding communications with Leytham. That compelled Niemann to file his ethics complaint.
“I was really surprised,” Niemann said of the report. “It’s the officials and then the rest of the government, including the county attorney’s office that handles public records requests: They were saying officially that there are no private emails, there are no texts.”
Niemann is no stranger in filing ethics complaints against county commissioners, and he’s been successful in some cases, including one last year. That’s when a complaint against Hagan resulted in the commissioner agreeing to pay a $2,000 fine after admitting he violated state ethics laws by failing to properly disclose assets on annual financial disclosure forms.
“Welcome to the political arena in 2015,” Hagan said in response Friday morning. “I’m surprised it took so long for the complaint to be filed.”
Hagan said, “Anyone who objectively reviews this will realize that these complaints are not about good government, it’s all about preventing the public from voting on a transportation referendum.”
Niemann disputes that characterization.
“It doesn’t matter what my view is on the referendum,” he said, acknowledging he’s a critic of any potential sales tax to pay for transportation improvements. “It’s more about getting honest government and officials that we can trust, and I think it’s clear that we can’t trust these officials.”
“It’s no coincidence that three individuals who filed the complaints have been three of the most vocal opponents of Go Hillsborough,” Hagan said. The Tampa Tribune reports that the other two who have filed ethics complaints are Shirley Wood of Lithia and Charlotte Greenbarg of Lutz.
Niemann said that there are about 10 other people he’s talked with who intend to file ethics charges, but that some people feel intimidated about doing so. He said the Joe Keel situation has had a chilling effect.
Keel is the owner of Keel and Curley Winery based in Plant City. He filed an ethics complaint against Commissioner Al Higginbotham last year, saying he used his political influence to prevent the winery from brewing and selling beer, something it had been licensed to do by the state. After the Florida Ethics Commission tossed his complaint, Hillsborough attorneys announced they wanted Keel to pay for the county’s legal fees in defending Higginbotham, before eventually dropping that request.
“I feel we as citizens, it’s the only tool we have,” Niemann said of filing ethics charges, other than voting lawmakers out once every four years.
FloridaPolitics.com contacted Buckhorn and Murman for response on Friday. A spokesman for the mayor said he was traveling and wasn’t sure whether he would be available. A call to Murman at her office at the county commission has not been returned.
Meanwhile, the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Office continues to investigate whether there has been anything unlawful committed in the procurement of hiring Parsons Brinckerhoff for the Go Hillsborough effort. County Administrator Mike Merrill has suggested he thinks the investigation will conclude within the next few weeks.
At that point, the Hillsborough County Commission will then have to vote on whether to put the half-cent sales tax on the ballot in 2016. Essentially, that will come down to Commissioner Victor Crist. The other six commissioners are divided 3-3 over whether to put the measure before the public.