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Authorities: White had no influence on towing lists

TAMPA - Kevin White tried using his authority as county transportation board chairman to boost the fortunes of tow truck operators, according to a federal indictment. It didn't work, and whatever influence White thought he had didn't amount to much, law enforcement and county officials said. White was arrested Wednesday by the FBI, accused of accepting money and gifts in exchange for his efforts to get Tri County Towing on the rotational lists for the sheriff's office and the Tampa Police Department. He was released Wednesday afternoon after posting $25,000 bail. White called the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office two times in June, asking for Tri County Auto Towing to be placed on a list the agency uses when it needs wreckers to clear traffic crashes and crime scenes, according to the indictment.
The rotational towing list is potentially lucrative, charging more than double the normal rates. Those rates are set by the county's Public Transportation Commission, which White chaired until November. The PTC regulates taxicabs, limousines, ambulances, tow trucks and other private vehicles-for-hire. It is mandated by state law and the only agency of its kind in Florida. The sheriff's office shot down White's request. The call was pushed up the agency's hierarchy to the supervisory level, but wasn't viewed as a major concern. "It wasn't alarming because it was an individual asking for someone to be put on rotation," sheriff's Col. Greg Brown said. "And that isn't done because of our procedures. These procedures are followed despite who calls and whatever they want." The agency has had no need to add to its list of about 40 towing companies for 10 years, sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said. White, or anyone else, has no chance to get a towing company on the list because the sheriff's office itself determines which ones are used, Brown said. "We don't base any of this on any outside recommendation," he said. Brown and Carter declined to comment further on who White called and the details of the conversations. White's inquiry apparently didn't make further waves at other levels of county government either. County Administrator Mike Merrill never received a complaint from the sheriff's office that White had requested Tri County Towing be placed on the list, county spokesman Willie Puz said. Tri County Towing was never placed on the lists for the sheriff's office or the police department. The towing company was the idea of George Hondrellis, the co-defendant in White's corruption case, and a confidential informant working for the FBI, the indictment said. Investigators say White took $10,000 in cash, several steak dinners and a luxury sport utility vehicle for his father to ensure that the towing company's certification with the PTC would "fly through" the process, the indictment said. Investigators say towing company owner Hondrellis paid White thousands for a better chance to get on the rotational lists. Hondrellis has been released on $50,000 bail. Obtaining a towing certification in Hillsborough is easy if all the requirements are met, commission members say. Applicants must pass a criminal background check. A company's vehicle fleet, financial status and employees' driving history are also checked by the PTC. Certifications are usually voted on as consent agenda items, not as line items, at monthly PTC meetings with little discussion. The process is so routine that former PTC commissioner Mark Knapp said he couldn't imagine anyone paying a board or staff member money to ensure an application goes through. When White was chairman, the shortest meetings would run for about 15 minutes, Knapp said. White was appointed to the PTC by his colleagues when he served on the Tampa City Council and Hillsborough's Board of County Commissioners. Although he was chairman, White didn't have total power in a board that had six other people, current PTC Chairman Dan Raulerson said. "He was one of seven," Raulerson, the mayor of Plant City, said. "He had 1/7 of the influence." State Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said the PTC is "beset with scandals" and "not worth the problems it creates." She pushed for legislation earlier this year to abolish the agency, but the proposed bill never made it to the Senate floor before the end of the legislative session. She plans to introduce new legislation. Current PTC commissioners say its rules may change in light of White's arrest. The commission is scheduled to review its policies at a workshop in July, said Bob Boss, a City of Temple Terrace council member and PTC commissioner. If there is no rule about a PTC member lobbying on behalf of a particular transportation company, Boss said he would look into creating a policy to prohibit it. "As a commissioner, you don't want to unduly influence people," he said. "There's an ethical standard of conduct."

rreyes@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7920 kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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