Thirty years ago, business as usual at the Hillsborough County Courthouse came to a screeching halt. That was a good thing because business as usual meant the majority of the county commission was accepting bribes in exchange for favorable votes to rezone land.
On Feb. 1, 1983 the FBI arrested three of the five commissioners, escorting them out of the courthouse and leaving the board without a quorum.
For years the trio of Fred Anderson, Jerry Bowmer and Joe Kotvas voted on rezonings without regard to professional staff or planning commission recommendations, and the concerns of neighboring property owners. Their approvals, postponements and denials of applications were motivated by one thing: bribes.
Commissioners Fran Davin and Jan Platt routinely found themselves on the losing end of rezoning battles. They watched their corrupt colleagues postpone some votes for no apparent reason while others were approved with the applicant barely speaking.
"You'd have to be a fool not to know," remembers Davin, who served on the county commission from 1974 to November 1982, just months before the arrests. "Things would get postponed; then, suddenly, a move to approve. You knew there had to be a payoff."
Platt recalls that at the time commissioners voted by a show of hands and the three corrupt commissioners would watch how each was going to vote before committing themselves. Their behavior was strange to say the least, and it even prompted one of the crooked commissioners to offer up an explanation of sorts to Platt's aide. "You might think we vote strangely, " said Commissioner Kotvas to Cynthia Gandee, " but we go by the Farmer's Almanac."
It would be hard to make this stuff up.
Davin and Platt had each, separately, taken their concerns to Bill James, who at that time was the U.S. attorney in charge of the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Justice Department. But the hard proof wasn't there.
Then a citizen stepped in.
Pick Talley was a former Hillsborough County director of Public Utilities who worked as a private engineer. He had been asked by landowners Peter and Nick Geraci to assist with their huge rezoning of 595 acres at the corner of Dale Mabry Highway and Van Dyke Road, called The Galleria. Since March 1982 they had tried unsuccessfully to get the rezoning approved despite favorable staff recommendations. The petition continued to be postponed, without any tangible reason, except for one suspected sighting of a bald eagle on the land that later proved false. Bowmer called Talley after the last postponement, saying the rezoning was certainly going to fail. He wanted to meet with Talley to discuss.
Suspicions raised, Talley conveyed his concerns to retired FBI agent Phil McNiff after the two played racquetball. McNiff asked Talley if he would consider meeting with the FBI. Talley did, and ultimately agreed to wear a wire and meet with Commissioner Bowmer about The Galleria rezoning.
His recorded meetings with Bowmer in the last days of January 1983 laid the foundation for the government's case against the three commissioners.
Talley initially offered a $30,000 bribe - $10,000 apiece for the three commissioners. But Bowmer wanted $100,000. Talley balked at such a high amount. The awkward negotiation ended with Bowmer finally telling Talley: "Tell you what. It (the re-zoning) won't go for much less than seventy-five."
As they parted, Bowmer told Talley to meet him in the lobby of the courthouse just before the start of the rezoning hearing. If Bowmer pulled on his ear, the vote was favorable; if he rubbed his nose, the rezoning wouldn't pass.
That evening, Bowmer pulled his ear. The rezoning passed the night of Jan. 27 by a vote of 4-1, with Kotvas voting no. Bowmer told Kotvas that it would look better for him with his constituents if he voted no.
When it came time to pick up the down-payment of $15,000 at Talley's office, Bowmer was nervous, saying that touching the money "scared him." Scared or not, Bowmer took the brown bag filled with marked bills and was promptly met by the FBI as he exited the building.
Faced with the overwhelming evidence against him, and seeking some leniency from prosecution, Bowmer agreed to be wired as he distributed the pay-off to Commissioners Anderson and Kotvas. On Feb. 1, in-between meeting with a group of citizens from the Brandon Chamber of Commerce who actually thought the commissioners might care about their community concerns, Anderson and Kotvas pocketed their share of the bribe money. Courthouse regulars then watched in astonishment as the three were escorted out of the building by FBI agents.
The result: arrests, indictments, convictions and a new Hillsborough County Charter that restructured the government.
Lessons abound from corruption and cleanups. One that stands the test of time: Doing the right thing. Honest commissioners going to law enforcement with their suspicions. A citizen willing to be wired by the FBI to seal the case.
There are other ramifications of the bribery scandal that still reverberate today.
But for now, we can take solace that in our country, there is a tradition of people caring enough to step in and right a wrong. Sometimes, a lot more gets righted than you can imagine, and that will be explored in my next column.
Pam Iorio is the former mayor of Tampa who is currently a speaker and author. Her email is email@example.com.