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Hillsborough PTC head Kyle Cockream calls possible investigation into his conduct ‘a witch-hunt’

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Despite the aims of Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission Chairman Victor Crist and county attorneys, Kyle Cockream is still the agency’s executive director, following a raucous board meeting Tuesday. The agency ultimately voted 3-2 to make a request for proposal to potentially hire a law firm at their next meeting next month to conduct an investigation into recent revelations about Cockream’s performance as the head of the agency.

Crist called last week for an emergency meeting of the PTC to discuss Cockream’s fate, following a series of media reports that showed he had used off-duty taxicab drivers in PTC ridesharing stings and made unauthorized trips to speak to the Palm Beach County Commission with officials of the cab and limo industry, among other revelations.

“Our agency’s integrity has been compromised from the top down,” Crist said at the beginning of the meeting. “The public have lost trust in our agency.” He then said that the best way to move forward would be an independent investigation the 12,000 emails that were recently released and have been the source for multiple news agencies (including SaintPetersBlog) depicting Cockream in a negative light.  He said it was “imperative that these allegations be addressed on an urgent basis.”

Crist said once the emails were made public several weeks ago, he asked PTC attorneys to pull out those they believed were “problematic.” The results, he said, “were shocking.”

When it was time for him to speak, Cockream let loose, describing the proceedings as “a circus” and a “witch-hunt.” He said he knew it was a witch-hunt because Crist told him two weeks ago that it “wouldn’t be a witch-hunt.”

“Mr. Crist and I have an extreme different version of some incidents that have happened,” he said.

Media reports have shown Cockream working with members of the taxicab and limousine industry he is charged with overseeing. Not only does he disagree with that perception, but so do the members of those industries, several of whom are featured in the emails. Many of those officials spoke out in support of him at todays’ meeting, while criticizing Crist.

Chief Assistant County Attorney Jennie Tarr came before the PTC and recommended five different law firms that could investigate the charges, offering different rates the respective firms or individuals attorneys would charge. She also mentioned the board could choose to terminate Cockream at the meeting, or allow him to resign.

And that’s where things got interesting.

“It seems like there’s a sense of a personal assault on the executive director’s character and integrity here today,” said Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick. “I hope the gentleman will have a chance to defend himself, because this is a sham what is taking place this morning. It’s been a sham of the stuff I read in the press.”

Reddick then questioned whether Tarr had any discussions with Crist before the meeting. She said she had one conversation after being asked by the county attorney to attend the meeting, but did not talk about any of the legal firms or other specific issues that had already been discussed.

Temple Terrace Councilmember David Pogorilich also strongly backed Cockream, saying that if he had come to him with his plans for using taxicab and limousine personnel to help with a sting operation, he was all for it. “Uber and Lyft are the ones who are breaking the rules. Uber and Lyft are the ones who are snubbing us. Uber and Lyft are the ones who are being noncooperative,” he said, referring to the fact that both ridesharing companies are considered by the PTC to be operating illegally (A proposed plan regarding background checks and other issues that has been endorsed by Uber will come before the PTC at their next scheduled meeting in November).

“Nothing has been done wrong here,” Pogorilich, comparing Uber and Lyft to Bonnie and Clyde. “But at the end of the day, they were just bank robbers.”

But Crist pushed back, saying that if the PTC didn’t do an investigation, “this agency will be guaranteed to be shut down by the Legislature during session. Guaranteed.”

Crist announced last month he would resign as chairman of the PTC in November. Reddick said good riddance, essentially: “It’s you who has taken this personally. I guarantee you, with you not sitting in that chair, it will be a better agency moving forward.”

“Probably a better agency for the cab companies, but not for the people we serve,” responded Crist.

Cockream defended himself from allegations he is working illicitly with the cab or limousine industries, saying that he has to honor public record requests, regardless of who is making such a request. “I can’t discriminate and not give up that information because it’s a cab company, or a limo company, or an ambulance company. I must relinquish that information.”

Ultimately, only Commissioner Ken Hagan joined with Crist in supporting a vote to immediately select a law firm, instead voting 3-2 to support Pogorilich’s motion to call for an RFP to look at hiring such firms next month. “The executive director should enforce the laws. However, knowing the agency’s history, the sensitivity with the ridesharing issue, and the public perception of the agency, the executive director should have the utmost prudence and discretion,” Hagan said. “I do not believe that happened here (board members Al Higginbotham and Nate Kilton were not present).

But the meeting wasn’t done. Crist went ahead and began discussing with Tarr the idea of putting Cockream on paid leave. That left the discussion about whether the board would need an interim director.

When Tarr mentioned she had already reached out to former interim PTC head David Jackson as a possibility, shouts of “conspiracy” were made by Reddick, who erupted, calling it “professionally unethical.”

Pogorilich said it was “orchestrated,” and again challenged Tarr about how many conversations, emails, or other messages she sent to Crist. Again, she said there had been only one previous conversation.

Board member Guido Maniscalco voted with Pogorilich and Reddick in opposing an immediate investigation or putting Cockream on paid leave. He said nothing during the meeting except when he was temporary chair. Afterwards, he said he voted the way he did because he thought the entire board should weigh in at one time.

The recent revelations prompted the agency’s numerous critics to pounce, and Tampa House District 60 Republican (and state Senate candidate) Dana Young has called for the FDLE to investigate the agency.

The PTC’s next meeting is Nov. 9.

 

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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