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FBI joins expressway inquiries

The state Auditor General’s Office started an audit. Now a member of the authority confirms FBI and U.S. DOT inquiries.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published October 2, 2006


TAMPA — The FBI and the U.S. Department of Transportation are conducting a criminal investigation into the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, an agency board member confirmed Monday.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Tom Scott, who sits on the seven-member board, said he spoke with investigators from the two federal agencies last week for more than 90 minutes.

“I was invited to meet with them and they are looking at the (Expressway Authority),” Scott said. “But I can’t disclose the content of their questions in order not to hinder their investigation.”

Neither the FBI nor the DOT’s Office of Inspector General would confirm the investigation.

The inspector general’s office frequently conducts criminal investigations with the FBI in cases of alleged waste, fraud or abuse in transportation agencies and projects, said spokesman David Burnes.

State lawmakers created the Expressway Authority in 1964 to build toll roads in Hillsborough.

A once obscure agency, the Expressway Authority came under greater scrutiny in 2004 when its key project, the elevated lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown, encountered serious construction problems.

The criminal inquiry is the third investigation into the agency since late August, when details emerged about possible conflicts of interest, violations of ethics and public record laws, and questionable billings by lobbyists.

An investigation in early September by Gov. Jeb Bush’s general counsel found no laws were broken, but it concluded that enough questions were raised to warrant a state audit of what the agency pays in legal and lobbying fees.

The state Auditor General’s Office began an audit last week that will review Expressway Authority finances.

Rhea Law, the agency’s interim legal counsel, said those investigators have requested billing records dating as far back as 2001.

Law would not say whether the FBI and the U.S. DOT are conducting a third inquiry.

Later, after Scott confirmed he had spoken with FBI and DOT officials, followup questions to Law were referred to Expressway Authority spokesman Mathias Bergendahl. He e-mailed a response from Law late Monday that did not acknowledge the investigation.

“(We) do not want to create any speculation about the Expressway Authority or the results of any review,” Law wrote.

“As results are forthcoming, they will be shared with … the public.”

This isn’t the first time federal officials have looked into the Expressway Authority.

In June 2004, Santos Ramirez, a special agent with the DOT’s Inspector General’s Office, asked the Expressway Authority for information about a possible conflict of interest involving Bob Clark, a board member who owns Tampa Steel Erecting Co.

At issue was whether Clark could vote on materials to be used in projects that could benefit his company.

Steven Anderson, the Expressway Authority’s legal counsel at the time, wrote an opinion urging Clark to abstain from votes that determine which materials will be used in road projects.

In an interview Monday, Anderson said Ramirez called him in 2004 and asked for the opinion about Clark. He said Ramirez asked other questions about Clark but Anderson would not disclose what they were.

The U.S. Department of Transportation wouldn’t confirm that Ramirez is working this case. A call to his downtown Tampa office was not returned.

It was another opinion that Anderson wrote about a possible conflict involving Clark that ignited the current round of investigations.

The governor appointed Clark to the board in 2003. At the time, the Expressway Authority was completing a purchase of $366,000 from Clark’s steel company.

Anderson flagged that purchase as questionable. More than three years later, on Aug. 28, Clark and four other board members, all appointed by Bush or one of his employees, voted to fire Anderson without a public discussion.
Board members Gwen Miller and Scott voted to retain Anderson.

When the law firm of Gray Robinson, which has strong ties to Bush, won the contract replacing Anderson, Scott claimed it was political payback.

A possible criminal inquiry could look into allegations that Expressway officials unlawfully steered the legal services contract to Gray Robinson.

It also might look into the billing practices of lobbyist John Beck, who met with Gray Robinson attorneys before the vote.

Beck’s partner, Cynthia Henderson, a former top official in Bush’s administration, double-billed the Expressway Authority last year for about $1,000.

On Monday, Beck’s firm reimbursed the agency another $5,731 after it acknowledged it had overbilled again this year.

Other board members said they had not heard about the FBI investigation.

“I haven’t heard anything. Let me know when you hear something,” Clark said.

“I don’t have any comment on an FBI investigation,” said former state Sen. James Hargrett, D-Tampa. “I have not been contacted.”

Miller, who said revelations about Beck’s double billings should result in his termination from the authority, said she didn’t know about the FBI inquiry, either.

“Nobody has called me or anything,” she said. “I wasn’t aware the FBI was involved until today when you told me.”

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello and Janet Zink and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

[Last modified October 2, 2006, 23:43:56]


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