tampabay.com

Records don't back Mervine

The toll road chief says his weekend calls to board members are common.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER and BILL VARIAN
Published October 20, 2006


TAMPA - Toll road agency chief Ralph Mervine says he often touches base with Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority board members on the weekends before Monday meetings.

"I will call board members on weekends," said Mervine, the agency's executive director. "I try to make sure that they will have the information they need to make a decision."

His cell phone records suggest otherwise.

A majority of weekends before board meetings this year, he didn't call them at all. During four weekends that he did, he accrued a combined 70 minutes of calls. In only one other weekend did he contact as many as three board members.

But before a key Aug. 28 board meeting, Mervine racked up 195 minutes on the phone with five of seven board members. The same bloc of members ousted the agency's legal counsel that Monday with little discussion.

The two board members on the losing side, Hillsborough County Commissioner Tom Scott and Tampa City Council member Gwen Miller, said Mervine's calls suggest he coordinated the vote before the meeting, a violation of Florida's open meetings law.

A former spokeswoman for the agency says Mervine told her that weekend how the board would vote.

The vote to replace law firms touched off a political firestorm that still engulfs the agency and has led to an investigation by the governor's office, a state audit and an FBI probe.

Records also show Mervine spent more than an hour during the same weekend speaking with the agency's lobbyist and consultant, John Beck, in between calls to board members. Beck has been under fire for questions about his billings and, like Mervine, allegations that he tried to steer the legal contract to the law firm the five board members approved.

Mervine couldn't be reached on his cell phone Thursday. An Expressway Authority spokesman, Mathias Bergendahl, issued a statement Thursday that said Rhea Law, the agency's interim legal counsel, would review the cell phone records.

"In an effort to address any questions on this matter, (Rhea Law) will review the phone records between (Mervine) and board members from Aug. 26 and 27," Bergendahl wrote in an e-mail.

An investigation in early September by Gov. Jeb Bush's general counsel, Raquel Rodriguez, found no evidence that Expressway Authority officials violated the open meetings law.

But Rodriguez didn't review the cell phone records, which were only recently made available.

While it's legal for someone in Mervine's position to speak with members of a government agency before a vote, the official can't broker a deal or build a consensus, a process dubbed "daisy chaining" or "bee pollination."

Mervine denies he coordinated the vote on the legal services contract, which was worth about $550,000 last year, before the Aug. 28 meeting.

"I did not pollinate the board members," Mervine said Wednesday. He said that, instead, he made a total of 13 calls that weekend to board members because they were concerned about negative publicity.

A series of newspaper articles had reported allegations about conflicts of interest at the agency. Mervine said Wednesday that he needed to assure board members the vote on the legal services contract would still take place on Aug. 28.

He contacted board members Bob Clark, Thomas Gibbs, James Hargrett, Alba Lopez-Isa and Don Skelton.

He said he spoke with Lopez-Isa after she became concerned after reading newspaper articles about the Expressway Authority.

"All she knew was what she was reading in the newspapers," Mervine said.

But Lopez-Isa said Thursday that she had been out of town then and hadn't read the articles.

"Bad publicity wasn't a concern I had," she said.

Gibbs also contradicted Mervine by saying he hadn't been worried about a possible delay on the vote.

"What difference does it make to me?" Gibbs said.

Gibbs and Lopez-Isa - along with Hargrett, Skelton and Clark - said Mervine didn't poll them on their votes.

Hargrett said Mervine frequently called him on weekends, so there was nothing exceptional about the 38 minutes in which they spoke on Aug. 27.

"He does call me on Sunday on a range of issues," Hargrett said. "Why does he call? I don't remember an example. I'm not being evasive, I just don't remember one."

Records show Mervine didn't call Hargrett in the 14 other weekends before Expressway Authority meetings this year.

The only board members Mervine didn't call before board meetings were Scott and Miller, the records show.

Mervine said he didn't call Miller because he didn't have her number. "How am I supposed to call her? I only have her office number," he said.

Miller said he could have looked in a phone book. "My home number is published."