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Report: End ties with lobbyist

Published December 1, 2006


TAMPA - For much of the past three months, a politically connected lobbyist named John Beck has played a key role in a series of controversies that has dogged Hillsborough County's toll road agency.

In a preliminary report, the state Auditor General's Office is recommending that the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority end Beck's seven-year run as lobbyist and consultant, a stint in which he became one of the agency's most powerful officials as it planned two road projects.

The report said the agency never had the authority to pay Beck and three other lobbyists more than $1.2-million since 2001 and should immediately end its relationship with them.

That conclusion was one of 13 findings by the Auditor General's Office, which launched a two-month investigation into the Expressway Authority amid allegations of misconduct.

The report contends that the agency's board erred when it sought to replace Ralph Mervine, who resigned as executive director on Nov. 8 after it was learned he owned a gay porn production company.

On Nov. 20, the board appointed Jim Drapp as "temporary interim executive director" to oversee the agency's day-to-day activities. But the report said it was a conflict of interest to appoint Drapp because he worked for a company that had a contract with the agency.

The report also found that the board "negated" any "evidence of impartiality" when it voted to fire the agency's legal counsel, Steve Anderson, because the board didn't discuss why it was overturning a committee recommendation to rehire Anderson.

The five board members who okayed the firing of Anderson were appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush. They voted to replace Anderson with a firm, Gray Robinson, with ties to Bush.

When it was learned that Beck and Mervine had met with Gray Robinson partners before the vote, Anderson supporters, including board member Tom Scott, demanded an inquiry.

The agency has 30 days to respond before the Auditor General issues a final report.

[Last modified December 1, 2006, 00:40:38]

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