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    A Times Editorial

    Questionable influence-peddling

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


    Tom Scott seems fully recovered from the corruption probe that nearly ended his political career. The Hillsborough County commissioner, who broke down when the feds asked questions in 1998, has reopened his one-stop patronage shop, this time leaning on -- of all people -- the state attorney.

    The public had every reason to believe Scott had learned from his mistakes. He said as much, and the man who doubles as the commission's chaplain -- he is, after all, a full-time minister -- made repentance a theme of last year's successful re-election campaign. "You want to avoid anything that has the appearance of impropriety," Scott said during the September primary. "I've grown."

    Scott didn't take long to renege on his word. Last month, with a campaign operative in tow, Scott called on Mark Ober, the newly elected Hillsborough state attorney. Scott's friend had a business proposition. He wanted a job from Ober delivering subpoenas. Scott explained to a Times reporter he had no idea why Michael Hadley, his supporter, wanted the meeting, and that he -- Scott -- made clear he would not partake in any discussion over a contract. Apparently the commissioner drops in on the state attorney just to shoot the breeze. Ober recalls the meeting differently. He said Scott sat as Hadley made his pitch, neither advocating it nor distancing himself from the discussion. "I can assure you," Ober said, "those comments were never made."

    Elected officials have the clout to open doors, which is why campaign supporters glom onto those in office. Scott knows that. So does Hadley. "You can't get a phone call back unless you're somebody," he said. Reasonable people know Scott's presence added weight. This is the sort of influence-peddling that got Scott in trouble before. He was investigated by the U.S. Attorney after arranging meetings for another campaign supporter who wanted business at Tampa General Hospital. Shortly after winning office in 1996, Scott, the board's only black member, interceded to help a minority contractor win a county food contract. The result was a disaster.

    No charges emerged in the TGH case. But taxpayers were stuck with Scott's legal bills, along with those of several others, and the commissioner won a court victory to keep the legal files secret. Hadley says he won't pursue the contract with Ober now that this story's out. There are ways for Scott to guide his constituents through the maze of government without abusing his authority. His inability to understand that distinction is an embarrassment. His tactics are those of a fixer, not a defender of the dispossessed.

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