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Scott's ethics again in question

The commissioner sits in on a business talk between a campaign supporter and the state attorney.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001


TAMPA -- County Commissioner Thomas Scott arrived at the State Attorney's Office last month with a campaign supporter at his side.

Once inside, Scott introduced newly elected State Attorney Mark Ober to his guest, union-president-turned-private-investigator Michael Hadley. Soon, the purpose of the meeting became clear: Hadley wanted a piece of the State Attorney's Office's investigative work.

Hadley came bearing a business prospectus for his company, Sable One Investigations, offering to charge $35 for the same-day delivery of a subpoena and $400 a day to conduct undercover surveillance.

As Hadley made his pitch, Scott sat by his side, lending, at least by appearance, the weight of his office to Hadley's business proposal.

The campaign supporter that Scott appeared to be helping had, according to dozens of documents, a checkered business past. Three years ago, Hadley had given up a $660,000 county contract to transport disabled patients to doctors' offices after sick and elderly customers complained of being stranded for hours by his company.

It isn't unusual for a politician to help a friend, but Scott had promised to avoid any appearances of impropriety in his new term in office. He won re-election last year by pledging he had learned from his mistakes and would no longer put himself in compromising situations.

But Scott's meeting in February with Ober raises ethical concerns since the County Commission must approve part of the State Attorney's Office budget. Ethics experts say it is appropriate for an elected official to assist a businessman with information about a contract, but it isn't good practice to sit in on meetings about contracts.

In fact, Scott was investigated by the U.S. Attorney's Office in 1998 after arranging meetings for another campaign supporter with the former president of Tampa General Hospital.

The campaign supporter, medical equipment executive David Bekhor, wanted to supply the hospital with medical imaging machines worth millions. Hospital officials accused Scott of threatening to delay passage of a county ordinance beneficial to the hospital if Bekhor, who had given Scott's church $15,000, didn't get the lucrative contract.

Scott knew little about the medical imaging business, but he attended three meetings to discuss Bekhor's business proposal. The hospital never gave Bekhor a contract.

After the investigation ended without charges, Scott said he wouldn't again put himself in such a position.

"Let me just put it this way: I am very scared about setting up an appointment with anyone," Scott said last week. "I am trying to stay out of that based on past experiences."

Even so, Scott attended the meeting last month with Ober and Hadley. He claims that he never asked Hadley why he wanted to meet with Ober and that he didn't know about the business proposal until the meeting was under way.

"Once they got into the discussion that is when I said, 'I don't want to be a part of whatever you are doing,' " Scott said last week. "At that point, I just kind stepped back. My position is, I will not be caught in a position like I was before."

But that isn't how Ober remembers it. He said Scott sat quietly as Hadley made his pitch, neither advocating it nor disavowing himself from it.

As to Scott's claim that he told Ober and Hadley that he didn't want to be part of the discussion, Ober said, "I can assure you those comments were never made. I am not going to lie to you about it."

Political successes, but business troubles

Hadley had campaigned aggressively for Scott when Scott needed it most during his tough re-election battle last year. Hadley worked precincts on Election Day as one of 12 registered poll watchers who proved an important part of Scott's get-out-the-vote effort.

Scott and Hadley have known each other since at least 1993, records show. Hadley's wife attends the 34th Street Church of God, where Scott is pastor.

After arriving in Tampa in 1981, Hadley, 48, rose to president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1593 and became an outspoken critic of HARTline, the county's bus system. He spoke out against HARTline's executive director and once apologized to former Mayor Sandy Freedman for calling her "the great Jewish princess." He also sponsored voter-registration drives.

"He has been somewhat of a personality in the community for a number of years," said Spencer Albert, manager of the county's minority business programs. "He's articulate, and he knows his way around this building. He knows who to talk to, and he knows who is in charge of what."

Hadley's skill at politics has not been matched by success in business.

In 1997, the county awarded Hadley's company, Sable Transportation, a contract worth up to $666,045 to help transport disabled patients to medical offices. Scores of seniors complained that Hadley's company left them at medical offices for hours waiting for a ride.

Some waited so long that they walked several miles home instead. In one case, a patient who was blind, diabetic and suffered from chronic heart problems waited four hours for a van.

County officials said Hadley didn't have the equipment and capital to complete his work under the contract. At the time, Hadley's company was in the midst of an unsuccessful Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. In 1998, he turned over the contract to another company.

Another one of Hadley's companies also lost a contract in July 1997 to serve as a courier for Tampa General Hospital. A litany of written complaints showed that the company didn't return phone calls on time and frequently got lost on the way to pickups. Drivers often dressed unprofessionally.

In 1999, when Hadley bid for a $30,000 contract with the county to deliver water samples to labs, the water department said Hadley did not have the resources or expertise to complete the task. They brought up Hadley's past problems on other contracts. Scott's office got involved, and the county's minority business office urged the water department to reconsider. Hadley won the contract.

Problems followed. He missed pickups, didn't finish work on time and was constantly losing employees, records show. In June 2000, Hadley and his wife declared bankruptcy. In November, the county attorney's office warned Hadley that it might terminate his water-delivery contract.

But since then, his performance has improved, according to the county's minority business office. A decision hasn't been made yet whether to renew the contract.

Despite Hadley's financial troubles, friends such as Bob Morrison, a former assistant to Mayor Bob Martinez, praise his tenacity.

"One of the key benchmarks of an entrepreneur is not always being successful, but continually learning from your experiences, and I think Michael falls in that category," Morrison said.

Meanwhile, Hadley has branched out. He formed a private investigator's company and gave it the slogan: "Sable One Investigations -- When you have to know."

Scott said he knew very little about Hadley's business record. He said he remembered that Handley worked in the disadvantaged transportation program. "I didn't know all the details," Scott said.

Scott was a reference on Hadley's 1993 application for a license from the Public Transportation Commission to operate vans. When the transportation commission suspended Hadley's license and prosecutors charged him in 1998 with operating a van in violation of a county ordinance, a county judge sentenced Hadley to pay court costs and perform eight hours of community service, which he did at Scott's church.

Hadley wouldn't comment for this story. "You're trespassing," he said before closing the door of his east Tampa home Thursday afternoon.

Ober's staff will evaluate whether it wants to do business with Hadley. The office appears to have little use for his services. Ober employs 11 investigators and a full-time process server to deliver subpoenas and conduct investigations.

"I am running a very conservative business here," Ober said. "If I couldn't find someone to serve a subpoena for me with the staff I have, I am not a very good business manager."

- Staff writer David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com.

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