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Hillsborough building official resigns after investigation

TAMPA - A top Hillsborough County building director resigned under pressure this week after a county investigation concluded he used his position help his fiancé, a civil engineer for a company where the director once worked. David Ford, managing director for The Center for Development Services, submitted his resignation Tuesday. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The investigation by the county's Investigation & Discipline Administration concluded Ford violated state law by using his position to benefit his fiancée, Heather Wertz. The two also were former colleagues at Hamilton Engineering & Surveying Inc. Interviews and e-mails show Ford asked employees Frank Breaux and Rick Cabrera in the county's Public Works department to allow Wertz to resubmit preliminary development plans, called a plat, for a subdivision. Breaux and Cabrera had initially rejected the plans.
After the initial rejection, Wertz submitted a revised plan with major changes that the Public Works employees felt required a full review by other departments, plus fees related to the review. When Breaux e-mailed Wertz saying the revisions were too significant to allow the plans to bypass the review, she forwarded the e-mail to Ford. A half hour later, Ford e-mailed Cabrera asking to meet with him later in the day. They met shortly afterward and Ford asked for information about the project, Park Creek Subdivision. Cabrera followed up with an e-mail that included a scan of the preliminary subdivision plat and Wertz' proposed revisions _ a reduction in the number of building lots and reconfiguration of the roads. "Given the changes, all the agencies need to review and comment on the revisions," Cabrera wrote. Interviews show Ford came looking for Cabrera after lunch. He wanted Cabrera and Breaux to treat the project as a re-submittal with "no fee and fewer approval agencies rather than sending it all the way back through the process," according to investigation documents. Cabrera said Ford then told him to "go tell Frank that this is how we need to handle it." Breaux obeyed, sending an e-mail to Wertz that day saying he had been informed all she had to do was resubmit the revised plat with a letter detailing the changes. No fees would be charged and the agencies that would review the resubmittal would be limited to four. But Breaux, bothered by the event, went to his boss, Mike Williams, the Public Works director over engineering and environmental. Breaux said he was "uncomfortable" with Ford's intervention, and Williams agreed that the action was out of bounds. "So there was an issue with the fees," Williams told the investigator, "but probably more importantly, Dave decided that the plans … would only go to certain people for review. It wouldn't go to everybody. And so that caused a lot of concern." When the investigator interviewed Ford, the investigator found inconsistencies between the director's statements and those made by Breaux and Cabrera, which were backed up by e-mails. For instance, Ford recalled only one meeting with Cabrera on Oct. 24, the day Wertz e-mailed her fiancé with the negative response to her plat re-submittal. During the interview, Ford said he was acting within the parameters of his job, which include "compliance assistance, the new term for customer service." But he also admitted making mistakes, intervening in a project submitted by his former employer and outside his area of responsibility. "I'm a veteran and I made two rookie mistakes …" he said. Wertz said in a phone interview that the county treated Ford unfairly because he never "gave a directive" to Breaux and Cabrera regarding the Hamilton project. "Additionally I'd like to say this is not something he did for me or for Hamilton that he would have done differently for any other client in a customer service manner," Wertz said. Wertz said she also feels she and Hamilton were victimized because of her relationship with Ford. "I think if you would have made this decision for any other firm or any other engineer, they wouldn't have done this," Wertz said. "But it's almost like they were looking for him to act in favoritism toward me. It puts Hamilton and myself, as an engineer in the community, at a disadvantage."

msalinero@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8303

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