What did board get for $1.6M on P.R.?

Published December 14, 2006

TAMPA - Over the past two years the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority has had an elevated highway collapse, two executive directors quit, and been investigated by the state and FBI over ethical improprieties.

Coping with this public relations nightmare has been difficult and expensive - a cost that has, itself, been a source of criticism.

So how much is the agency, which is hiking tolls by 50 cents a trip in January, paying for positive spin?

According to agency records, at least $300,000 a year.

A report by Florida's Auditor General's Office last month chided the Expressway Authority for its spending on consultants, specifically highlighting the agency's public relations expenses as highly questionable.

But the report gave no details as to what these expenses included. A review of agency records since February 2002 shows $1.6-million spent on P.R. covered an array of expenses, including preparations for a holiday party; the ghost writing of a magazine article; and a $10,000-a-page flier touting a troubled roadway project.

At least one Expressway Authority board member said the agency might not have properly questioned the spending for public relations because of recent problems.

"There's a possibility we haven't scrutinized it close enough," said Robert Clark Jr. "When (Ralph Mervine) was director, he was concentrating on getting the project done rather than supervising things that should have been supervised."

Clark said when it came to P.R., Mervine's predecessor, Pat McCue, was even less accountable.

"He had his own thing going there," Clark said of McCue. "Even when the board tried to oversee him, quite often, what was authorized, Pat would find ways where he could extend it or enlarge the scope of what people were doing."

Mervine and McCue could not be reached.

A lot of the agency's image problems are beyond the control of its consultants. It wasn't the fault of a P.R. person when a pillar collapsed in 2004, spelling trouble for the elevated lanes at the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and leading to the exit of McCue as executive director.

Nor could any spokesman control the blowback from a political dispute that exploded in August, sparking allegations of misconduct that prompted investigations by the governor's office, the auditor general and the FBI.

And no one could have predicted the resignation of Ralph Mervine, who stepped down as executive director last month after it was learned he owned a gay porn company.

But the media expenses since 2002 raise their own questions.

Take Harold Aldrich. Even though the agency was already paying media specialists more than $400,000 to craft a public image, it paid Aldrich $541,000 during the same time period.

It made him responsible for many things. It paid him to attend board meetings and then listen to the same meetings on audiotape so he could write summaries of them for officials who attended those meetings.

And who exactly is Aldrich?

Aldrich's stint with the Expressway Authority reaches back to 1995. He was a reporter for the Tampa Times in the late 1970s.

As a consultant for the authority, Aldrich says his background will allow him to help staffers respond to the auditor general's critical report.

"A lot of people don't understand the circumstances surrounding the report," Aldrich said. "I know the history, so I can provide some of that context."

But the report, which didn't mention Aldrich, spotlighted spending it called questionable. A review of Aldrich's invoices show some unusual expenses.

For instance, Aldrich billed the agency $105 in December 2005 to plan a holiday party.

"Each year, the board has a December reception for former board members," Aldrich said in an e-mail Wednesday. "As I recall, the person who normally organized the event and sent out the invitations was sick, and I was asked to do it in her place."

He charged the agency $800 in 2004 for researching and writing an industry magazine article.

"Civil Engineering Journal asked Mr. McCue for an article on the innovations of the reversible express lanes," Aldrich said. "He asked me to write it."

Aldrich charged the agency $4,600 for a staff retreat in 2002, which he said was approved by McCue. And in October, he billed $2,012 to write a history of the agency.

Other agencies may spend more on public relations and communications.

For instance, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, which runs the county's bus service, spends about $1.8-million a year. But that includes the salaries and benefits of customer service representatives at bus stations, as well as advertising and bus schedules and maps.

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which oversees the Tampa International Airport and three county airports, spends about $1.7-million for advertising and 17 customer service representatives.

But no other Tampa Bay agency has had its public relations spending so scrutinized by the state. And at the Expressway Authority, Aldrich wasn't the only consultant to get paid lucrative sums.

A Winter Park firm called Patterson Bach was paid $618,667 between July 2002 and June 2006. It was paid $308,789 for a series of eight newsletters that had articles on car giveaways, the construction of a street median and a lawsuit between the Expressway Authority and a contractor.

It was a good value, said Tim Bach, the firm's president.

"The $300,000 covered everything, the writing of it, the postage, the photos," Bach said. "The job of the newsletter was to promote interest in the (Lee Roy Selmon) express lane project. I think it achieved its purpose."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Janet Zink and Bill Varian contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402.