Hargrett: Vote on airport tax bill was a mistake
By DAVID KARP
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000
TAMPA -- Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner had begun a campaign to tax private businesses at Tampa International Airport when he bumped into state Sen. James Hargrett Jr.
In the chance encounter, Hargrett told Turner that he operated three stores at the airport that might be taxed because of Turner's effort.
According to Turner, Hargrett told him: "You do whatever you have to do. ... Please understand I am staying out of it."
But last year, when a bill exempting airport businesses from property taxes came before a state Senate committee, Hargrett did not stay out of it.
He voted for a bill that would have given his stores at TIA a property tax exemption worth about $3,800 a year.
"It was a mistake," Hargrett said Thursday about his vote. "I slipped up. I goofed. I didn't intend to vote on that bill."
Hargrett intended to avoid voting on the issue to prevent the appearance "that I might be doing something that would benefit me," he said.
But when the bill came before the Senate Transportation Committee on April 20, 1999, Hargrett said, he didn't realize what the legislation was about.
During the meeting, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jim King Jr., R-Jacksonville, quickly explained it, and an official with the Florida Association of Property Appraisers briefly spoke against it. The debate was over in about three minutes.
The bill passed through the committee unanimously, then died in another Senate committee.
"I probably didn't know what I was voting for," said Hargrett, D-Tampa, an 18-year veteran of the Legislature. "Sometimes in committee, we come in and they are calling the roll call, and we just vote on bills when it seems to be unanimous. "It was just an oversight," he added, "and in the heat of the session, you can't be on top of everything."
But now, as Hargrett runs for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission, his opponent has seized on his business at the airport as an issue.
In a recent debate, Commissioner Tom Scott accused Hargrett of using his ties as a legislator to help make money at the publicly run airport.
Hargrett earned about $46,000 last year from his company, Bay Area Concessions Inc., which runs Florida Shop, Florida Market and Florida Attractions at TIA. Hargrett also holds stock worth about $155,000 in the company, according to his financial disclosure statement.
"If he voted on those (issues), it's a conflict," Scott said Thursday. "He has a business at the airport. How can he vote on anything when he has a conflict?"
Scott and Hargrett will face each other in a runoff election Oct. 3. The winner takes on Libertarian candidate Joe Redner in the November general election.
Hargrett, even as he acknowledged that he shouldn't have voted on the bill, said Thursday that he did not create a legal conflict by supporting the legislation. The bill would have benefited scores of businesses at airports and ports across Florida, not simply his own business, he said.
"I voted on a bill to give tax breaks to seniors. One day I am going to be a senior," said Hargrett, 58. "We voted on a sales tax holiday, and that benefits me and my family."
In 1989, when he considered expanding his airport businesses to Jacksonville, Hargrett asked the Florida Ethics Commission for an opinion about the propriety of voting on airport bills.
The Ethics Commission told Hargrett he could vote on bills that affected airports as long as the legislation did not create a "special gain" for him. Bills could create a "special gain" for Hargrett depending on how many people besides Hargrett benefited from them, the commission wrote.
Hargrett said Thursday that the bill would have helped too many people to create a "special gain" for him.
"I will make mistakes from time to time, but I will admit the mistakes when I make them," he said.
Scott has questioned the way Hargrett obtained the contract in 1985 with Host International Inc. to operate his three airport stores, which sell gifts and snacks with a Florida theme.
"Clearly at some point there was some favoritism there," Scott said.
But records show Hargrett and Host beat out two other major corporations to win the contract.
Federal regulations at the time required the airport to award its main concessionaire contract to a corporation that included minority business partners. Besides Hargrett, who was a state representative with a retail business, C. Blythe Andrews, the publisher of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, a bi-weekly that reports on African-Americans, and lawyer Arthenia Joyner, now a state representative, competed for the contract.
An independent panel led by a California-based consultant for the accounting giant Peat Marwick ranked the proposal. Hargrett's proposal with Host was ranked superior by everyone on the panel.
"I believe it was a clean process and an open process," Hargrett said. "No one who investigates that can claim there was anything underhanded."
- Times Staff Writer David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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