Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Vinik-linked Tampa communications firm Catalyst directly involved in PSTA chief misleading PSTA board

Repost with permission from Tampa Bay Guardian, original TBG post is here.

A draft version of an email PSTA CEO Brad Miller was preparing to send to the PSTA board contained a damning admission which didn’t appear in the email that was ultimately sent to the board. The omission could be very damaging, both for Miller and for the communications firm Miller sent his draft to. The email was obtained through a public records request.

This is our third article on the controversy swirling around the bus stop PSTA put close to PSTA board member Pat Gerard’s home after she lost her driver’s license in 2019. See our first article and second article for more background.

Miller emailed his draft email for review to Preston Rudie, owner of the well-connected Catalyst Communications firm in Tampa. The relevant portion of the draft is shown below with a crucial piece of text, as shown immediately below (the highlighted text is all that you need to read):

Click to enlarge

The highlighted text confirms that the mystery “passenger” that Dayal claimed approached him and asked that a stop be added was in fact then Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard. She was also a PSTA board at the member at the time.

Our first article on this scandal involving special privilege had suggested that the “passenger” and Gerard were one and the same. Despite repeated inquiries to Dayal, he has refused to answer questions about who this passenger was that he claims spoke to him on Veterans Day 2019 (a day off for Dayal) about adding a bus stop near Gerard’s home. Our second article noted that Veterans Day 2019 was Gerard’s 70th birthday.

In the draft, Miller’s bold-face headline is “Pat Gerard’s Bus Stop,” which is exactly what makes it illegal: the bus stop was added specifically for the special privilege or benefit of a board member. Such action is illegal, even under Florida’s rather narrow ethics law. Specifically, Gerard and PSTA staffers clearly appear to have violated §112 (6) “Misuse of Public position” of the ethic law.

The special benefit provided to Gerard is also troubling because it creates a conflict of interest. The board member’s role in this case is to provide oversight of Miller and PSTA, specifically for the Pinellas County commission as an appointee of that elected body. Did Gerard do less oversight once she got her bus stop? Was there a quid pro quo? Gerard won’t answer our questions, or provide a categorical denial of impropriety.

The draft email referenced a “claim that PSTA installed a bus stop at the request of, and to benefit former PSTA Board Member Pat Gerard,” but in the email sent to the board, the word “installed” had been replaced with “moved.” Given that only PSTA would know if the bus stop was “installed,” suggesting a new stop, or if it was an “existing” stop that was moved, we contacted Rudie and Barker (mentioned below) to ask what their role was in changing this one word. How would they know if it was moved or installed? They did not respond to this questions, or other questions, or provide a statement for publication.

The scandal also has implications for Hillsborough County, for the entire Tampa Bay area, and helps shed light on the recent transportation debacles on both sides of Tampa Bay.

Miller sent his draft email to Rudie, but also to Christina Barker. According to her LinkedIn profile, Barker is “Chief Of Staff at Vinik Family Office” and one of the main architects behind the failed 1% sales tax hikes to fund transit in Hillsborough County that took place in 2018 and 2022. Vinik helped fund both efforts, spending millions of dollars each time.

Vinik’s troubled $3.5 billion Water Street real estate project in downtown Tampa would have benefited to the tune of $1.4 billion had the last sales tax hike passed.

Now Barker is advising the Pinellas transit CEO as he misleads his board. She holds two jobs: working for Vinik, and working for Catalyst, which in turn advises PSTA.

The Florida Supreme Court determined that the 2018 Hillsborough sales tax hike was unconstitutional after it passed. Barker once bragged about having helped to design it “over drinks” one evening. The $500+ million dollars that were collected before it was nixed are still the subject of litigation, five years later.

A circuit court judge determined last October that the 2022 tax hike violated Florida Statutes for six different reasons . The matter was being appealed by Hillsborough County when voters rejected the measure at the ballot box last November. The county since dropped its appeal.

Rudie’s wife Veronica Cintron, a former long time Bay News 9 news reader, landed a $223,000 a year job in 2020 after the Tampa airport (a public agency) violated their own personnel policy in hiring her. In fact, Cintron didn’t even have to fill out an application for the high-paying public sector job. The position was also not advertised so that other candidates could apply.

While Miller’s actions may cost him his job, Catalyst’s involvement in Miller misleading his board may do reputational damage to that firm. The damage may also extend to Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team owner Jeff Vinik — Catalyst says on its website that it has “strong relationships with officials at the local, state and federal level” through its Government Affairs business segment. And through Barker, Jeff Vinik now does, too.

Despite a record of failure, it appears Jeff Vinik still has faith in his Chief of Staff to be his main carnival barker.

Is this the caliber of people that the taxpayers deserve to provide transportation solutions and congestion relief for the Tampa Bay area? Or are they merely mediocre but well-connected cronies?


From the Eye: The well connected transit cronies....money flows and they scheme behind closed doors.


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