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Road agency under fire again

A day after the governor orders an investigation of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, a state senator calls for a legislative inquiry.

By JANET ZINK and MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published September 2, 2006


TAMPA - Scrutiny of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority intensified Friday with state Sen. Victor Crist calling for a legislative inquiry into possible improprieties at the agency.

Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday ordered an investigation of the authority amid accusations that it violated ethics policies and the state's Sunshine Law in awarding a lucrative contract for legal services.

Crist said he's glad that Bush is looking at the agency, but the Legislature might provide a more objective examination because the governor appoints four members to the authority board.

"It may be better from a public perspective to have a third party conduct the review in the Legislature," Crist said.

Public concern over the Expressway Authority erupted this week after the authority's board ignored a selection committee's recommendation that its attorney, Steve Anderson, be rehired as the authority's legal counsel.

Instead, the board chose the law firm Gray Robinson, with all four of Bush's appointees approving the selection.

Gray Robinson also has links to Bush. Karen Unger, who is married to Gray Robinson partner Jason Unger, served as Bush's campaign manager in 2004. And Gray Robinson lawyer Peter Antonacci in 2002 represented Bush's daughter, Noelle, when she was charged with writing phony prescriptions for Xanax.

Bush ordered the investigation after reports that David Hendrix, a partner at Gray Robinson, met with John Beck, a lobbyist for the authority, and the authority's executive director, Ralph Mervine, in the weeks before the contract was awarded. The meetings may have violated the state's open government laws, according to an in-house lawyer for the Expressway Authority.

This isn't the first time the Expressway Authority has been investigated.

In March, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched a criminal probe of allegations that there had been "collusion" on the part of the agency's lobbyists, Beck and Cynthia Henderson, in the bid process for a proposed toll road in New Tampa.

According to an FDLE report, a Winter Park developer, Ron Meers, complained to state Sen. Jim Sebesta, who then told Denver Stutler, the Florida secretary of transportation.

Transportation Department spokesman Dick Kane said Stutler considered the complaint serious enough that he alerted the FDLE in March. By April 12, the investigator assigned the case, Michael O'Connell, had concluded that Meers could not corroborate the allegation.

Kane said the FDLE told Stutler the claim was unsubstantiated, and that was the last he heard about it.

It's not clear how thorough O'Connell's investigation was. The report made available by FDLE is one page and barely describes the complaint by Meers.

Mervine, the Expressway Authority's executive director, said he didn't even know there had been an investigation until a reporter told him about it Friday.

Although the case is closed, Sebesta would not comment on it or explain how he knows Meers.

"I don't want to get into it," he said. "Not with all that is going on the past few days with the Expressway Authority."

Meanwhile, some lawmakers are using the controversy to bolster their efforts to create a regional transportation authority, and others are worried about the impact the situation will have on plans for a toll road in New Tampa.

State Sen. Mike Fasano is part of a group drafting legislation to create a regional transportation authority that would plan and finance toll roads, mass transit and other projects in an eight-county area including Hillsborough.

He said the Expressway Authority would be redundant if the regional authority is approved during the spring legislative session.

"Our Senate bill will do away with the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority and have only one entity, and that would be the regional transportation authority," he said. "There's no need for duplication, and with the history of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, I feel confident there would be very little opposition to doing that."

State Rep. Bill Galvano, also a leader in the regional transportation effort, said he, too, is starting to think that the Expressway Authority should be dismantled. Galvano last year sponsored a bill to establish a regional transportation authority that specifically addressed working cooperatively with agencies such as the Expressway Authority.

"As I see more and more being revealed about the existing authority, I'm very comfortable at this point saying, 'Let's just focus on creating an autonomous regional authority and discontinue the existing expressway authority,' " he said.

The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority recently suggested building a toll road that would run through Manatee, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

Galvano said leaders in his district like the idea, but didn't like the way the Expressway Authority unveiled the project without consulting leadership in Manatee County.

"It may just be another reason why we need to consider discontinuing it," he said.

Crist, though, worried that abolishing the Expressway Authority would diminish efforts to address transportation needs in populous Hillsborough County.

"I need some assurance before we go along with that," he said. "We just may need to change the guard."

Crist also worried that abolishing the authority would cause problems for existing projects, including a proposed toll road in New Tampa that the Expressway Authority is managing.

The road, which would link Interstate 275 to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, is intended to relieve congestion on Bruce B. Downs and provide New Tampa drivers with a direct link to the interstate.

In June, the city agreed to sell land to the Expressway Authority for the road, which will be built by a private company. It would be the first road in the state operated as a private business in which tolls are collected as profit.

The deadline for bids is this month.

"The timing is just horrible," said Tampa City Council member Shawn Harrison, who represents New Tampa. "I don't want any of those people who are potential proposers to be scared away and to think the authority can't handle this job or to give the impression that the city of Tampa is not 100 percent behind it."

Harrison also wants to be sure the road gets built even if the Expressway Authority is abolished.

"My concern is that if the authority goes away, that the project goes away. That would be a tremendous blow to the viability of New Tampa," Harrison said. "This is the absolutely most important final piece of the transportation puzzle in New Tampa. I am going to jealously protect it with every ounce of my being."

City Attorney David Smith said the city remains committed to the project, with or without the Expressway Authority.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or 813 226-3401.

[Last modified September 3, 2006, 11:59:05]


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