More accusations are flying from the Pat Gerard campaign against her opponent in the District 2 Pinellas County Commission race, Ed Hooper.
The allegation: that Hooper used his spot in the state legislature to pad his bank account by doing favors for clients.
Last week Gerard released information speculating Hooper’s consulting firm, Consus Group, was making money by introducing legislation in Tallahassee for clients.
Hooper denied the claims arguing his Clearwater-based company only does business locally, but conceded he would remove himself from the 50/50 partnership if he is elected to commission in November to “avoid the perception of a conflict.”
Now the Gerard camp has what they see as irrefutable proof that Hooper made money in his private business by using his clout in Tallahassee.
They uncovered documents from the city of Clearwater tying Hooper’s partner, Joe Burdette, to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in February, 2011. Burdette is listed as the non-profit’s “agent.” Gerard calls that a lobbyist.
Then, in December that same year, Hooper introduced HB 1015 which would allow the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to put its name in the hat for a portion of Pinellas County’s bed tax.
According to Gerard’s campaign, that could earn the aquarium as much as $25 million.
But Hooper says the aquarium hasn’t gotten a dime as a result of the legislation. He also points out the bill, which was passed without a single no-vote in the House, applied to far more groups than just CMA. It applies to the Mote Marine Aquarium in Sarasota and the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, among others.
“They were prohibited by statute from any bed tax funding,” Hooper said.
Whatever Hooper’s partner earned from consulting for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium would have been split with him 50/50. Regardless, Hooper says the work his partner did for CMA was not lobbying.
“He did the constructionmanagment for them to make sure they weren’t getting overcharged,” Hooper said.
The timing of Hooper’s bill was also strategic. The county’s bond payments on Tropicana Field are set to expire next year. That will free up about $6 million a year from the county’s resort tax, or what is commonly called, the bed tax. At the time Hooper’s bill was introduced, groups were already starting to circle for a piece of that pie.
Regardless, Gerard is using the connection between Hooper’s Consus Group and his tenure in the Florida House as grounds for unethical behavior.
“Ed Hooper told us his clients didn’t benefit from his votes in Tallahassee. We now know for a fact that wasn’t true,” Gerard said. “The simple fact is that his clients signed a contract with him, and then they received millions as a direct result of his action in Tallahassee.”
A press release from Gerard’s campaign manager, Tom Alte, also accused Hooper of pushing $5 million into the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to ensure production of Dolphin Tale 2.
Both Hooper and Sen. Jack Latvala put that money into the 2014 budget as a pet project. Latvala asked for $4 million, Hooper $1 million. It was approved by both branches and then signed by Governor Rick Scott.
Gerard’s campaign also pulled documents showing that Hooper’s partner also consulted for the Church of Scientology, but there was no direct correlation to legislation that benefitted that group.
The accusations go both ways. Hooper has already released information about Gerard tying her to campaign activity during a Largo-funded trip to Tallahassee. Gerard is the current mayor of Largo.
Hooper says he has more information about his opponent he says be releasing soon.