Calls before vote stir questions

The expressway board leader phoned everyone who voted with him.

Published October 19, 2006

TAMPA — On the weekend before the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority voted to award a lucrative legal contract, executive director Ralph Mervine spent three hours and 15 minutes on his cell phone with the five board members who cast the deciding votes.

Those board members won a 5-2 decision Aug. 28 to sack the authority’s longtime outside legal counsel, Ruden McClosky, with little explanation and replace it with another politically connected law firm.

That vote sparked a dispute that is still roiling the agency and has led to an investigation by the governor’s office, a state audit and an FBI inquiry.

Mervine said he did not poll the board members to coordinate the upcoming vote, which would have violated Florida’s open meetings law. He said that, instead, he made the calls to assure the five members that the vote on the legal contract would go ahead Monday despite a rash of negative publicity.

He said it was a coincidence he didn’t call the two board members on the losing end of the vote: Tom Scott, a county commissioner, and Gwen Miller, a Tampa City Council member.

Lawmakers created the Expressway Authority in 1964 to build toll roads in Hillsborough. Its projects include elevated lanes on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and a proposed beltway to stretch through Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas and Manatee counties.

But just as the agency neared completion of the elevated lane project in late summer, it got ensnared in a political dustup about the contract that earned the Ruden firm and its lead attorney, Steven Anderson, about $550,000 in the last year.

That contract might have seemed safe for renewal after a selection committee including Scott and Mervine ranked the Ruden firm as its No. 1 choice on Aug. 25. Board members would consider that ranking and vote on the contract three days later.

But individually, Mervine ranked Gray Robinson, a law firm with ties to Gov. Jeb Bush, as his top firm. It was later learned he dined with a Gray Robinson partner days before the committee met.

According to cell phone records, Mervine made or received 13 calls to five board members in the three days before the board vote. Board members Bob Clark, Thomas Gibbs, James Hargrett, Alba Lopez-Isa and Don Skelton, all appointed by Bush or his designees, spoke with Mervine that weekend for a total of 195 minutes, records show.
Mervine said the subject of whom they would vote for never came up.

But on that same weekend, Mervine also called the agency’s then-spokeswoman, Beth Leytham. Leytham said that in a 25-minute conversation on Sunday and in other discussions, Mervine indicated the authority would not follow the committee’s recommendation to retain Anderson. Leytham had previously worked for Anderson about 10 years ago and resigned as authority spokeswoman the day his law firm was fired.

When asked if Mervine told her Aug. 27 or on any previous occasion that he knew the board would ignore the bid rankings, Leytham said, “Yes, he did.”

How did he indicate that?

“In all manner, it was abundantly clear to me that he did not wish for Ruden to remain as general counsel,” Leytham said.

Mervine denies he knew how the board was going to vote.

It’s illegal in Florida for board members of government bodies, or their agents, to coordinate votes before meetings. While it’s legal for someone in Mervine’s position to speak with members before a vote, the official can’t broker a deal or build a consensus, said Sandra Chance, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

The vote to hire Gray Robinson immediately drew scorn from Scott, who claimed it reeked of impropriety.
When told about the phone calls, he said, “I think it’s very curious that the executive director would call all the governor’s appointees and not call the two locally elected officials.’’

Anderson said he wasn’t surprised by the calls, either.

“It was obvious to me there was shuttle diplomacy between board members to pre-arrange the vote,” Anderson said.Gwen Miller said the intent of the calls was obvious.

“It’s out of the Sunshine,” she said. “Why didn’t he call me?”

Lopez-Isa couldn’t be reached for comment. But Clark, Gibbs, Hargrett and Skelton said they couldn’t recall what they discussed with Mervine in the calls.

“We always talk before a board meeting,” said Gibbs, who spoke with Mervine for 94 minutes between the committee vote and board votes. “Never, ever do we talk about upcoming votes.”

“I have no idea what we talked about,” said Clark, who spoke with Mervine for nine minutes the day before the meeting.

“I can’t recall,” Skelton said of the 29 minutes he talked with Mervine. Hargrett said Mervine didn’t mention any upcoming votes in the 38 minutes they spoke that Sunday.

“I just don’t remember what we talked about,” he said.

Mervine said he didn’t call Scott because Scott had helped evaluate the law firms. Mervine said newspaper articles had raised doubts with board members that a vote on the legal contract would happen, but Scott had assured him he would support a vote.

“There was no reason to call Scott,” Mervine said. “He was there when we ranked them.” Mervine said he didn’t call Miller because she was usually busy on weekends and couldn’t be reached.

“I have to rest on weekends,” Miller said. “I’m not busy. … I feel a little left out.”

Bush’s general counsel, Raquel Rodriguez, looked into the controversial vote in September. She found no evidence of open meeting law violations. But on Wednesday, Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said Rodriguez didn’t review cell phone records because they weren’t provided.

Mervine said he told Rodriguez he called board members. But he doesn’t recall if he told her he only called five of them. “I’m allowed to talk to board members,’’ Mervine said. “What I don’t do is carry messages back and forth.”

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Joni James and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report.