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Expressway Authority tightens control over its lobbyist

At a contentious meeting, board member James Hargrett Jr. is appointed as a "point person" to oversee John Beck's day-to-day activities.

By S.I. ROSENBAUM
Published October 24, 2006


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The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority had agreed to put its controversial lobbyist on a shorter leash.

John Beck's duties will be more narrowly defined. He will bill by the month, not the hour. And instead of answering to all of the authority's board members and its staff, he will take direction from a designated "point person."

The question remained: Who would be holding the leash?

At the meeting of the authority's board Monday, chairman J. Thomas Gibbs suggested member James Hargrett Jr.

Hargrett didn't seem too happy about taking on that responsibility. He pointed out that state Sunshine Laws would prevent him from consulting with other board members on decisions regarding Beck's activities.

"It's real difficult to do decisionmaking when you're unable to communicate," he said.

Beck has been under scrutiny since August, when board member Bob Clark sent him to meet with a law firm competing to become the authority's new legal counsel. The law firm, Gray Robinson, won the bid days later - despite being ranked second by a hiring committee.

Later, Beck's billing practices also came under fire, when his firm was found to have overbilled the authority at least twice.

Rhea Law, the board's interim legal counsel, told board members that an informal poll of similar boards across the state showed that the authority was paying Beck more than three times what other boards paid their lobbyists.

Last month, the FBI began an investigation of the authority but provided no details. In addition, the state auditor general is reviewing the agency's finances.

On Monday, Law told Hargrett he could call an emergency board meeting if he was unsure how to direct Beck.

She said Beck's duties would be clearly delineated. "I think you would have a pretty good feel for what actions the authority would take," she said.

Hargrett accepted the position as Beck's boss.

The board also amended Beck's contract to require him to report to the board on his activities at least once a month.

The decision came during a contentious meeting.

Board member Thomas Scott, a Hillsborough County commissioner, was upset that Law had shown up to an Oct. 18 county commissioners' meeting.

Scott had asked the commission to support his push to revamp the authority board.

Law and Fred Karl, a former county administrator who has been retained by Law's firm as a consultant, both asked the commission to wait.

On Monday, Scott demanded to know who had sent Law and Karl to the commission meeting.

When Law replied that Gibbs had asked her to attend, Scott said he felt blindsided.

He said Law should have gotten the permission of the full authority board to speak on authority business.

"No one should be acting without their being given some official direction," he said.

Law said lawyers for governmental boards typically take direction from the chairman.

"If you would like all these specific directions to come through this board, that would be very tedious for me," she said.

Scott questioned an investigation by Law into the phone records of the board members because the board had not specifically told her to look into the matter.

That prompted Karl to speak up. "The general counsel has the implied authority to look out for the best interests of the board."

Clark took a swipe at Mary Hall, the authority's legal affairs director. "Mary Hall called for an investigation of this board," he said. "Is she not still employed by us? She doesn't represent the best interests of this board if she calls for an investigation of us."

Hall took the microphone to deny the charge. She said a reporter had asked her whether the board would look into the controversy surrounding the hiring of Gray Robinson.

"The logical thing was to say we were going to look into it," she said.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at srosenbaum@sptimes.com or 813 661-2442.

[Last modified October 24, 2006, 06:20:49]


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