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Governor questions board vote

Jeb Bush urges the Expressway Authority to toss out a contract it awarded, because of the appearance of impropriety.

Published September 9, 2006

TAMPA - A Hillsborough toll road agency broke no laws when it awarded a lucrative contract last month, Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday, but its actions looked improper enough to start over.

"The bid ought to be thrown out," Bush said, referring to the contract for legal services awarded by the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority.

The handling of the bidding triggered allegations of ethical breaches and Sunshine Law violations, led to the governor's investigation and has emboldened state lawmakers seeking to eliminate the agency.

Bush also recommended a state audit of the Expressway Authority's finances and suggested that the state's toll road agency, Florida's Turnpike Enterprises, could take over the embattled Hillsborough agency.

"Agencies like this ... can violate the trust that's given to them if they don't stay focused on the core mission," Bush said. "There are other people that say maybe the better approach is to have the Turnpike do it. The Turnpike could do this and they'd do a darn good job."

Bush's comments came as his general counsel, Raquel A. Rodriguez, announced the results of the investigation Bush ordered last week.

A public dispute within the authority's ranks over its legal services contract has shed light on interwoven ties between contractors, lobbyists, lawyers and agency officials at an obscure organization that handles millions of tax dollars.

It has never had such scrutiny, all triggered by a decision to fire attorney Steve Anderson of the Ruden McClosky law firm and hire of the Gray Robinson law firm.

Last year, that contract was worth about $550,000 in legal bills.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Tom Scott, who sits on the Expressway Authority and voted to retain Anderson, called the vote a sham.

Revelations emerged that, before the vote, a partner with the winning firm had dinner with the agency's executive director, Ralph Mervine, and met with the agency's lobbyist at the direction of a board member, Bob Clark.

Clark had a strained relationship with Anderson over a dispute about whether his steel company had a conflict of interest.

The day after Bush ordered his investigation, the authority's legal affairs director, Mary Hall, declared that the authority had violated its policies and the Sunshine Law in meeting with the Gray Robinson attorney, David Hendrix.

But the eight-page report from the governor's general counsel says that those meetings violated neither the Sunshine Law nor the board's bidding process policies.

Yes, says the report, Clark did ask the agency's lobbyist, John Beck, to meet with Gray Robinson to discuss the legal services contract. But Beck maintains he also met with representatives from competing law firms too ; he just hadn't submitted the invoices for those meetings yet.

Rodriguez did find that Mervine's dinner with Hendrix "showed poor judgment" and had "sufficient appearance of impropriety to support a decision by the board to void the entire bid process."

In her report to the governor, Rodriguez recommends that the authority:

- Void the contract

- Undergo an audit by Florida's Auditor General, including an analysis of its staffing and lobbying and legal fees.

- Review its ethics, bidding and other policies to determine if they need to be bolstered.

- Hire an interim general counsel not involved in the original bidding to oversee this overhaul.

Last week, the authority hired the Fowler White law firm as its interim general counsel.

Rodriguez concluded the authority had been "paralyzed" by the level of media scrutiny in the past two weeks, and should, therefore, void the Gray Robinson contract.

The Expressway Authority had been planning an ambitious slate of projects just after it struggled to open the elevated lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway project this summer.

In 2004, a Crosstown pillar collapsed, prompting board members to fire then-executive director Pat McCue.

More recently, itt floated plans for a beltway through four counties, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and eastern Hillsborough, that has drawn some support, but also criticism for furthering suburban sprawl. The Expressway Authority has also been planning a 3-mile toll road in New Tampa that has drawn international interest.

It may be the first public pairing with a private company for a toll road in Florida and could mean millions for the winning team of builders bidding on the project.

In response to the governor's comments, Expressway Authority board chairman J. Thomas Gibbs released a statement through the authority's newly retained spokesman, Mathias Bergendahl. Gibbs said that he would meet with Fowler White lawyer Rhea Law over the weekend to prepare for Monday's board meeting.

"We recognize that there is much work to be done to move beyond this situation and get back to the business of continuing to bring transportation improvements to this community," he wrote.

"We're going to do whatever it takes to make that happen."

Board member James T. Hargrett said he wouldn't comment on the governor's actions until he had gotten the investigation's official report.

Anderson, who was out of town, said he would wait until he reads Rodriguez's report before he decides whether to bid again on the contract.

But member Scott, who had called on the governor to investigate, was jubilant.

"I'm ecstatic," he said upon being told of Bush's decision. "Oh boy, you just made my day."

He added, "That's all what I wanted anyway: Investigate it and let the facts show what they are. Let's do what's right to restore integrity to this board."

Times staff writer Joni James and S.I. Rosenbaum contributed to this story.

[Last modified September 9, 2006, 01:50:39]

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