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Politics

Blame trails roadway bid

With a state senator watching, that's trouble.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD
Published April 12, 2007


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TAMPA - The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority was embarrassed last week when news broke that a sitting board member had bid for construction work from one of the authority's contractors.

That didn't correspond with what the authority had just told a lawmaker in a formal letter. So a political firestorm erupted.

Even more embarrassing: It became clear Wednesday that the lawyers who drafted that letter had in their possession a document indicating that board member Bob Clark Jr. may have bid on that job. But they didn't follow up on it.

Instead, the Expressway Authority's general counsel, Rhea Law, asked Clark a broader question: Was there anything about Clark's business dealings that the Expressway Authority needed to worry about?

She said Clark repeatedly told her no. She puts the blame squarely on Clark for not telling her about the bid.

"We did absolutely nothing wrong," she said of her law firm, Fowler White, one of the most prominent in the Tampa Bay area. "He had at least three opportunities to tell us the truth."

Still, Hillsborough's toll road agency may have been able to avoid yet another controversy if its lawyers had asked Clark this:

Had Clark, a local steel magnate, made a bid to sell steel girders to PCL, one of the Expressway Authority's main contractors, in June 2003, months after he joined the authority's board?

Instead, it fell to newspaper reporters to ask Clark that question, after viewing the same documents the law firm had.

Clark acknowledged last week that he had bid for that PCL job. And the Expressway Authority had a problem on its hands because it had recently assured its biggest critic, state Sen. Victor Crist, that Clark and other board members had not been doing business with the authority's contractors.

The senator harshly criticized the authority, complaining that he felt misled about Clark's possible conflict of interest.

Gov. Charlie Crist came out in support of a bill that would let him replace most of the authority's board. And Clark resigned last Friday.

Law, who is one of the region's most powerful attorneys, is adamant that she wasn't trying to hide anything and that she never intended to mislead Sen. Crist.

"I asked Bob Clark, 'Why did you not tell me about this?' " Law said. "He said he didn't remember it."

- - -

The problem began when Sen. Crist wrote to the authority on March 5 asking questions about Clark's work with PCL.

Just before Clark was appointed to the board, his company got a $366,000 contract with PCL in January 2003 to supply steel girders for the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway's reversible lanes.

Sen. Crist asked if Clark had sold any more steel to PCL.

The Expressway Authority asked Law to find out and respond to Sen. Crist.

Law has been the road agency's interim general counsel since September, and her firm does the bulk of its legal work.

Law asked an attorney in her firm, Susan Johnson-Velez, to collect some PCL documents that the authority had recently obtained in a lawsuit against a different company, URS.

On March 9, the Expressway Authority's in-house lawyer, Mary Hall, e-mailed those documents to Johnson-Velez.

That e-mail, which the Times viewed after a public records request, included a copy of a June 2003 fax from PCL to Clark, four months after he joined the authority board.

The fax reads, "Bob: I am attaching some basic info regarding our requirements for the second set of erection girders. As you can see, we really want to get a price by the end of the day Friday. ... If not, please let me know when you can provide a quote - specifically what date and time?"

An e-mail from PCL included with the fax says PCL was sending information "to the companies bidding" on the girders.

Law says she never saw this fax, though Johnson-Velez did.

But Law and authority spokeswoman Honey Rand say it doesn't matter.

They argue that the PCL fax appeared at the time to be a non-issue, and that Law was focused on the larger issue of Clark's overall work for PCL.

Rand makes this argument: Hall's e-mail said that, in the PCL files obtained by the authority, there was nothing showing Clark had responded to PCL's fax.

Also, an out-of-state company got that job.

"If you look at the paperwork, this is a dead end," Rand said.

Still, when a Tampa Tribune reporter asked Clark last week about the June 2003 fax from PCL, Clark acknowledged bidding on the project. Clark then repeated that to the Times.

"We were all appalled," Rand said. "Everybody involved in the process was appalled."

Clark is no longer commenting on the matter.

Law and Johnson-Velez say they questioned Clark last month about his January 2003 contract with PCL, before he was on the board, and about later steel sales that were part of that same contract. They say they asked if Clark's company had bid on any other PCL projects, and Clark said he hadn't.

They drafted their letter to Sen. Crist, and asked Clark to review it for accuracy before they sent it.

Law later called Sen. Crist to apologize.

"Rhea Law has assured me that they had no knowledge and I believe her," the senator said Wednesday. "She's always been truthful, up front and honest and direct with me."

Law has been interviewing applicants to replace her and become the Expressway Authority's permanent general counsel, and plans to recommend one to the board April 23.

She said that, with new ethical guidelines and at least two new board members, the Expressway Authority should finally leave its problems behind.

Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.

 

 

[Last modified April 12, 2007, 10:10:35]


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