Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Friends of the Investigator and More

Tampa Bay Times columnists Sue Carlton wrote on February 2nd a Times article about who was brought into the Go Hillsborough law enforcement investigation:
Bobby O'Neill, once the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, was brought in by the Sheriff's Office as a consultant in its investigation — a smart move in a case that involves both public trust and actual fact.
This was just after she wrote this on January 26:
Word is that nothing criminal was found in that soon-to-go-public investigation by the Sheriff's Office regarding Go Hillsborough. Expect to see some squirm-worthy moments for elected officials anyway.
Who told Carlton there was "nothing"? Why would she make such a blanket statement without stating why she said it or who told her? What narrative is Carlton attempting to create?

Back in 2013, Carlton's article about O'Neill resigning his position as US Attorney for the Middle District of Florida included this
Mayor Buckhorn considers O'Neill a good friend; they have shared more than a Guinness or two
O'Neill was investigating Buckhorn who was a participant in the entire Go Hillsborough/Parsons Brinckerhoff/Beth Leytham debacle. That set off some curiosity about Bobby O'Neill and we used the Google to find some interesting information.

Apparently there was a brouhaha that occurred in 2010 amongst the 3 finalists for the position of US Attorney for the Middle District. Criticisms of each of the finalists were reported in this article Public Criticism Delays Nomination in Middle District of Florida. We certainly do not know whether any of the claims were true but criticisms of O'Neill included an accusation of an extramarital affair and his ownership of a pub, Four Green Fields, that raised money for the Irish Republican Army political leader Gerry Adams.

We now know that O'Neill co-owns a popular downtown pub, Four Green Fields. Maybe Buckhorn is a regular there where he shares more than a Guinness or two with O'Neill.

Commissioner Hagan has been pursuing his new baseball stadium for years and just recently again proposed using a TIF (tax-increment financing which is taxpayer monies) to help pay for it. That's not a new idea of his since according to this June 2011 Times article

The approach is called tax-increment financing, and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan put it center-stage this week as an idea to help the Tampa Bay Rays make a new home somewhere in the county.  
Monday, Buckhorn had drinks at a downtown bar with Hagan and Beth Leytham, a public relations consultant who is friends with both, and the three discussed the idea.
Maybe they were all having a Guinness or two at O'Neill's pub…. (It would be nice if Hagan spent as much time prioritizing our current budget to fund our roads and transportation as he has for the last 5 years pursuing taxpayer funds for a new baseball stadium).

To digress a moment - Buckhorn filed for reelection September 12, 2014, coincidentally at the same time the County was handing Parsons Brinckerhoff their no bid contract to do public engagement with their "communication team of one Beth Leytham in tow". According to this Times report 
In preparing for this campaign, Buckhorn assembled the same team of political operatives he has worked with in the past, some for 25 years: pollster Keith Frederick, direct-mail specialist Jon Coley, television consultant Dane Strother, former aide Siobhan Harley and Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham. He sent out his first fundraising email a few hours after filing his paperwork. (emphasis mine)
Buckhorn's Pollster Keith Frederick is the same pollster Leytham engaged, at taxpayer expense, to do polling for Go Hillsborough.

Reviewing Buckhorn's campaign filings at the Supervisor of Elections website, we could not find any expenditure to Leytham or any in-kind donation given by Leytham for the campaign work she did for Buckhorn. How can that be? Is that legal? Shouldn't at least an in-kind donation have been reported for her services and advice?

We know anyone can contribute to any candidate but it is always interesting to see who does. Gleaned from Buckhorn's campaign filings was Sheriff Gee contributed $100 to Buckhorn's campaign on 9/25/2014 right after he filed. Colleen Chappell contributed a total of $1000 individually and her ad agency Chappell-Roberts contributed $1000 to Buckhorn's campaign, again at the same time in 2014 the Parsons/Leytham team was starting the campaign. 

Leytham, who was Parsons subcontractor, brought Chappell-Roberts into the Go Hillsborough effort as a subcontractor of her. Chappell-Roberts registered the GoHillsborough.org website and apparently was managing the website. We note that recently the GoHillsborough.org domain name was transferred to the County who redirected the domain name to the County's Transportation and Economic Development website where there is an archived view of the original campaign website.

We previously posted here about following the circular money trail.

These cozy relationships were feeding off a $1.35 million taxpayer funded Parsons contract for marketing and campaign work to push a sales tax hike referendum that never went through any transparent bid or RFP. To our knowledge, the County never even provided a requirements document which is project management 101.

Back to O'Neill. When he was sworn in according to this post in 2010 he stated
“We have to provide equal justice under the law for everyone,” O’Neill said, according to the Tribune. “That’s the key. That’s what we will strive to do.”
According to this Times article, O'Neill resigned as US Attorney in 2013
O'Neill, 55, a veteran crusader against public corruption who oversees federal prosecutions in a 35-county swath of Florida, will join a risk management company led by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh. 
His tenure in the Middle District dates to 1993 and includes the fall of Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White and Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake.
At O'Neill's send off party when he resigned as US Attorney in 2013, the Times reported
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said O'Neill was among a handful of true friends, one she calls even now for advice, and — you know this is coming — he's the only man she knows who looks good in a mullet. 
"I love you so much," Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee told O'Neill. "You're such a good friend."
In that same article the Times reported
He [O'Neill] emphasized the importance of knowing when to wield justice. "Some people," he said, "need to be buried under the courthouse, taken away from society and kept there forever."

Others make mistakes.
O'Neill resigned as director of the parent company of the pub, DPI days after he was sworn in as US Attorney in 2010 but it appears he is still a co-owner of the Four Green Fields Pub.

According to this Tribune article last June, O'Neill's pub was one picked by a "special panel" of the Airport Authority. Interesting that three restaurants picked are owned by Richard Gonzmart (Ulele, Goody Goody and Columbia Restaurants). Sorry no Outback or Lee Roy Selmon's got picked.

There were four protests of bid rigging in the bid process that apparently was blessed by TIA's high-salaried CEO Joe Lopano and praised by Commissioner Victor Crist who thought that when you get too big (aka become very successful) you lose your local identity.

A few months after the airport concession award, DPI sold it's 4 adjacent properties to the St. John's Episcopal Church. The properties combined market value, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser, at the time of the sale was $911K and they sold all the properties in September 2015 for $3.75 million.

Property          Current HCPA Market Value

According to this Tribune article about the sale of the property
St. John’s Episcopal Church, eager to secure expansion prospects for its school, has bought the property that includes the iconic Irish pub Four Green Fields at 205 W. Platt St., according to a letter emailed to the church community Thursday.

Colin Breen, a co-owner of the bar, confirmed the sale. “We have been having conversations over the years about it,” Breen said. “The church was concerned about being boxed in, so we came to an agreement. They now control the land while we stay as a tenant. It’s business as usual.”
DPI took out a 2nd mortgage in August 2015 from Carlyle Investment for $800K after Four Green Fields was awarded their airport concession in June and a month before they sold their current property to St Johns. The outstanding balance on the 1st mortgage was $1.5M. Perhaps the 2nd mortgage was taken out to provide capital for their new location soon coming to the airport.

Let's connect some dots.

Sue Carlton, Times columnist, is married to Times editorial writer John Hill as Creative Loafing reported here.

John Hill is friends with Beth Leytham, who is at the center of the Go Hillsborough investigation. Hill has refused to disclose their close relationship. And Leytham is not shy about leveraging her relationships to get positive editorial spin.

Leytham is very close associate of Mayor Buckhorn and Commissioner Hagan who were voting members of the Policy Leadership Group that helped hand Leytham hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars via the Parsons Brinckerhoff no bid contract. This also occurred while Leytham was Buckhorn's campaign consultant.

Buckhorn, Hagan and Leytham are all close associates and are all part of the Go Hillsborough debacle.

Leytham is Buckhorn's campaign PR consultant but there is no campaign expenditure or in-kind donation reflected in Buckhorn's campaign filings for her work.

Buckhorn is good friends with O'Neill.

O'Neill is co-owner of a restaurant that got an airport concession awarded by the Airport Authority Board that Commissioner Crist sits on.

O'Neill is good friends with Sheriff Gee.

Sheriff Gee contributed to Buckhorn's campaign.

Sue Carlton writes Times articles first insinuating nothing will come from the investigation and then writes that former US Attorney for the Middle District of Florida O'Neill was brought into the investigation.

It's apparent these folks travel in the same circles and therefore are friends. However, there should be no skepticism or lingering questions regarding the investigation outcome.

With no disrespect to HCSO, our question is -  shouldn't an investigation be done by those totally independent of anyone involved in the investigation or who is being investigated?  Should friends be investigating friends? 

There are still questions that Merrill and the commissioners should answer as to why Merrill, over a weekend with no transparency or any public input from the county commissioners, asked the Sheriff to investigate and not FDLE. Remember it was Merrill and Leytham who took the Go Hillsborough campaign totally rogue last August when, as we posted here, they unilaterally with no governing approval decided to bring back the full 1% sales tax hike.

We await the completion of the law enforcement investigation and do not know the extent of it, how broad or how narrow it's focus. However, only a forensic investigation that gets all the text messages from the cell phone providers, gets all the emails and follows the money trail for where every dime of the $1.35 million went, will we ever know the truth.

Regardless of the result of the law enforcement investigation something is not right down at County Center. It's not all just "mistakes".

From the beginning of the Go Hillsborough debacle, we have stated that with all these close, cozy and friendly relationships, some of them wearing numerous hats, the taxpayers must be protected.

But will they?

Update: Looking at the Supervisor of Elections website, we also found:
In June 2010 O'Neill's pub, Four Green Fields, donated $500 (the maximum at that time) to Mayor Buckhorn's campaign.
Go Hillsborough Investigator O'Neill's pub donated to Buckhorn

1 comment:

  1. In the 2015 MPO LRTP, Tax Increment Financing(TIF) was a major funding source for future transportation improvements, but was discarded shortly after 1997 when passage of the CIT sales tax offered a much simpler way to go and with much more money raised. Building a light rail line from the airport to Ybor will raise the property values along the line and increase monthly rents, all will be able to be include in a TIF area. Something Parson-Brinckeroff knows very much about. Who owns those properties and how much will their properties value increase? All at the expense of the County Taxpayer.