tampabay.com

Bush orders review of agency

The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority has been criticized for awarding a contract to a law firm.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM and MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published September 1, 2006


TAMPA - Gov. Jeb Bush ordered an investigation Thursday of a Hillsborough County toll road agency amid accusations that it violated ethics and the state Sunshine Law in awarding a lucrative contract.

"The governor has concerns," said governor's spokeswoman Alia Faraj. "There is a perception of impropriety."

Bush launched the investigation a day after County Commissioner Tom Scott, who sits on the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, urged the governor to examine how the agency awarded the contract.

Scott is seeking to void the legal services contract after it was learned the agency's executive director dined with a partner of the winning law firm days before the vote.

The Expressway Authority's legal services director, Mary Hall, joined Scott on Thursday in seeking to throw out the contract, which was awarded to the Gray Robinson law firm.

In an e-mail sent Thursday to Expressway Authority staff and board members, Hall said that the handling of the contract violated the Sunshine Law and that she was "appalled" the firm had not withdrawn its application.

"In order to protect the integrity of this agency and to restore public confidence in the authority board, the board must take action immediately and disqualify any firm that participated in the ex parte communications," Hall wrote.

In an interview, Hall said "ex parte" referred to a July 26 meeting between David Hendrix, a Gray Robinson partner, and John Beck, a lobbyist for the Expressway Authority, and an Aug. 23 dinner between Hendrix and Ralph Mervine, the agency's executive director. Those meetings, she said, violated the state's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law. With some exceptions, that law requires that government agencies conduct public business in the open, not in private.

Bush's general counsel, Raquel Rodriguez, will conduct the review, Faraj said.

Rodriguez will examine the bid process of the legal services contract and other related issues. Faraj would not say what those other issues are, and said it was too early to tell how long the probe will last or what type of records or interviews will be needed.

"I can assure you this is a priority with Gov. Bush," Faraj said. "He wants a process of transparency."

The governor appoints four members of the seven-member Expressway Authority. The other three represent Hillsborough County government, Tampa city government and the state Department of Transportation.

Before learning of the governor's decision, the City Council on Thursday weighed in, voting to send a letter asking Bush to investigate the Expressway Authority's bid process.

"This is a cloud over a transportation agency and I have great concerns over it," said council member Linda Saul-Sena, who made the motion to send the letter.

Much is at stake with the Expressway Authority. After a pillar collapsed in 2004, completion of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway's elevated lanes was delayed for a year. The project finally opened this summer.

In July, Expressway Authority officials announced plans for a beltway that would run through parts of Manatee, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Also in the works is an east-west toll road in New Tampa.

But frustrating these plans is the growing chorus of calls for an independent review, which came after a string of revelations about the inner workings of the Expressway Authority emerged last week.

To some, it seemed more than a coincidence these revelations surfaced at a time board members were considering ending the agency legal services contract held by Steve Anderson of the Ruden McClosky law firm for the past nine years.

Last Friday, newspapers reported that Anderson had raised ethical concerns in 2003 about board member Bob Clark's company, Tampa Steel Erecting Co. The company sold $366,000 of girders to the Crosstown Expressway elevated highway project shortly before Clark was appointed to the board that oversees the project.

Mervine, the executive director, questioned the timing of the news, which was reported the same day a selection committee would rank the law firms competing for the contract. Those firms included Anderson's and Hendrix's.

"It's very suspicious that on the day of evaluations (Friday), on the front page of the two newspapers in this town, are articles about Mr. Clark on an issue that we dealt with a few years ago," Mervine said. "Who would gain from that?"

Clark didn't sit on the committee, but Mervine, Scott and Hall did. The committee ranked Anderson's law firm first, but when the Expressway Authority board met to decide which firm to hire, Clark moved to award the contract to Gray Robinson.

The vote outraged Scott, who threatened to quit.

After it was reported Wednesday that Mervine had dinner with Hendrix at the Macaroni Grill two days before the hiring committee vote, Scott asked to throw out the bids.

Mervine said he respects Scott's opinion, but Clark dismissed it.

"Tom Scott is a spoiled brat," Clark said Thursday. "He's uncomfortable because it didn't go like he wanted."

Clark and Mervine said they welcome an investigation.

Mervine said he accepted Hall's judgment that the dinner was a violation of Expressway Authority policy, but stressed that he had been acting in good faith.

He stopped short of agreeing that the dinner violated the Sunshine Law. "That I don't know."

Hendrix said he's certain that the governor's office won't overturn the vote.

"We're confident our proposal will withstand this review," he said. "I welcome the governor's inquiry."

If anything, an independent inquiry is needed to quell public suspicions of wrongdoing, said University of Florida law professor Joseph Little.

Anderson said he thought the independent investigation was a good idea. He added he respected Hall and her judgment. But he said Ruden McClosky wouldn't file a protest of the authority's decision. The firm had until Thursday to do so, according to Expressway Authority policy.

"Frankly, I have very little enthusiasm for continuing as general counsel under the current conditions at the agency," he said.