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Go Hillsborough cleared of ethics violations, yet many questions remain

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Although an extensive review of a “Go Hillsborough” contract award cleared the project of ethics violations, several unanswered questions remain.

In a nearly 2,000-page report, both the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney Mark Ober found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by county staff, commissioners or consultant Beth Leytham before awarding the profitable transportation expansion study to Parsons Brinckerhoff, Leytham’s client.

Nevertheless, Noah Pransky of WTSP says the investigation corroborates earlier findings that show Leytham’s regular practice of behind-the-scenes influence.

At one point, Ober seemed to suggest possible sanctions against Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, as well as additional public records training for other administrators and staff. After reviewing the report, the State Attorney sent a 12-page letter to Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee saying he discovered no violations of either lobbying laws or contingency fees.

Go Hillsborough may be clear of suspicion, but Pransky lists several findings in the report that raise critical questions about government transparency, or the lack thereof.

“Although Ober didn’t think Leytham met the legal definition of a lobbyist,” Pransky writes, “many of the documents released in the report suggest otherwise.” It includes Leytham’s contract and phone records with longtime client Parsons Brinckerhoff, which outlines her duties and responsibilities, including “government relations services,” a typical description of lobbying.

However, when questioned by investigators, Murman acknowledged Leytham was “lobbying,” while Commissioner Ken Hagan and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn each denied the implication.

Raising another red flag was the failure of Sheriff’s investigators to get deleted text messages, which Pransky says could provide a smoking gun of wrongdoing.

Pransky quotes the sheriff’s report: “After seeing the pattern of communication specifically around the PB selection timeframe, Investigators attempted to obtain any deleted text messages from the cell phones of Ms. Leytham, Commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandra Murman, and Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Investigators asked each person if they still possessed the cellphone they used during the 2014 time period. All four advised they had upgraded their cell phones and no longer possessed them. Commissioner Murman provided a receipt.”

Pransky also notes the overall tone of Ober’s letter to Gee, which could give ammunition to anti-tax opponents of the Go Hillsborough project. For example, there appeared to be a noticeable lack of suspicion on Ober’s part, compared to those suspicions of detectives doing the questioning. It seemed that Ober was favorable toward the actions of politicians, even as they resisted giving up public records.

Also,  as the state examines further ethical complaints against Murman, Hagan, and Buckhorn on the state level, Pransky points out that the investigation remains outside the scope of the HCSO probe.

So, while the heat is off Go Hillsborough (for now), there is still a lot of plausible deniability to go around – as well as several unanswered questions.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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