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Asked about porn, road chief resigns

A report links the Expressway Authority leader to a gay film business.

Published November 9, 2006

Ralph Mervine earned $208,000 annually with the Expressway Authority.
[Times photo]

TAMPA - The executive director of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority resigned abruptly Wednesday night after being questioned about his link to a gay pornographic film production company in California.

Ralph Mervine couldn't be reached for comment, but Expressway Authority officials confirmed late Wednesday that he had resigned his $208,000-position amid questions he wouldn't answer.

Board chairman J. Thomas Gibbs called Mervine after a television reporter called him. Gibbs said he then called Mervine to ask him if it were true.

"He told me, 'I'd rather not talk about it,' " Gibbs said. "He then said, 'Maybe I should resign.' I told him that would probably be a good idea."

Earlier Wednesday, Mervine had been asked by reporters from the Tampa Tribune about records listing him as owner of Coast Productions, a San Diego video production company, according to the newspaper's Web site. He declined to discuss it.

Gibbs and other board members were reeling from the latest revelation to rock the agency.

"I don't understand," Gibbs said. "I'm totally taken by surprise."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Tom Scott, who previously called for Mervine's resignation after a dispute over a contract, said he couldn't believe it.

"The whole revelation stunned and shocked me," Scott said. "But I had already lost confidence in Ralph Mervine a couple of months ago."

Records list a "Ralph Mervine" as the owner of Coast Productions. The business' Web site was down on Wednesday night. It advertised such DVD titles as Ballzy Boys, Forever Boys, My Lads and Twink Time, all of which feature young-looking nude men. The welcome page included a warning about explicit content and had three young men posing provocatively beneath the words "Fresh Young Bucks."

"All models are 18 years of age or older," a disclaimer reads.

On its "About Us" page, it reads, "Coast Productions has been producing erotic male videos since 1996. From our San Diego base we search for young, fresh, models and video them in solo and couples action."

Documents filed at the San Diego Recorder's Office listed a Ralph Mervine as the owner of Coast Productions beginning in 1999 with a 2004 renewal good through 2009.

Expressway Authority response was swift. A spokesman, Mathias Bergendahl, called the St. Petersburg Times at 9 p.m. from his cell phone while driving to read a statement:

"Today the Expressway Authority's executive director, Ralph Mervine, submitted his resignation to the chairman of the board, who accepted.

"In his resignation Mr. Mervine says that it is time for the authority to seek new leadership. The resignation is effective immediately.

"An appointment of an interim acting executive director will be forthcoming. At a special meeting on Monday the board of directors will discuss a formal process for identifying new leadership."

Florida corporate records also list Mervine is the head of Carter Construction & Development Inc. in Mulberry.

Described as a "take charge guy," he was hired by the Expressway Authority in 2004 at a salary of $208,000, plus $500 per month car allowance. He stepped in as the agency was trying to rebuild public confidence after piers for the elevated highway it was building collapsed.

Mervine previously worked as an engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation for 11 years, where he was a director of operations.

He also worked for ARAMCO, Arabian American Oil Co., as a senior project engineer. And he began his engineering career as a project engineer on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Mervine became a figure in a saga that started in August when the board voted to fire its legal counsel, Steve Anderson.

The firing sparked a political dispute that brought scrutiny upon the agency by the governor's office and the FBI, along with calls from state lawmakers for it to be disbanded.

Gibbs said he didn't know why the hiring process didn't catch Mervine's business ties to the San Diego company.

"He was vetted by our general counsel at the time, it wasn't the board's responsibility," Gibbs said.

Anderson said it wasn't fair to blame him for missing Mervine's ties to the company.

"Sure, blame the empty chair," Anderson said.

Anderson said during an interview before Mervine was hired he mentioned "that he was one of many financial partners in some Broadway productions.

"I asked him about the nature of the productions, but he said it was for shows like Cats."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report.


[Last modified November 9, 2006, 09:15:54]

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