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Kevin White indictment alleges bribes from towing boss

TAMPA - Sitting in a brightly lit courtroom Wednesday, his jaw resting on his right hand and his forehead furrowed, Kevin White stared at what could be the last act in a tumultuous public life. In front of him lay a 28-page indictment that the former Hillsborough County commissioner leafed through while waiting for his initial hearing before a federal judge. The indictment outlined federal charges that White abused his position as chairman of the county's Public Transportation Commission, taking bribes in return for favors to a towing company. The charges could land the 46-year-old White in prison for decades, punctuating a downward spiral that started two years ago when a federal jury found he had sexually harassed a former aide. The harassment lawsuit and trial left White saddled with $155,000 in legal bills and helped lead to his defeat at the polls Aug. 24. All those problems paled compared to White's predicament when FBI agents knocked on the door of his Riverview home at about 6:45 a.m. Wednesday. After his arrest, White was taken for an initial hearing before U.S. District Judge Thomas B. McCoun III, who ruled White could be released on a $25,000 bond.
White left the courthouse without commenting. His attorney, Ronald Cacciatore, declined to comment. Also at the hearing was co-defendant George Hondrellis. Hondrellis, who wore a "Tampa City Towing" T-shirt, is accused of bribing White in return for favorable treatment in getting a towing certificate. A certificate is required if a towing company wants a coveted spot on the Tampa Police Department and county Sheriff's Department towing rotations. Hondrellis reportedly applied to the transportation commission for a certificate two years earlier but was turned down because of his criminal record. Hondrellis, who was released on $50,000 bail, called the bribery charges a lie. "I don't have a certificate and I never wanted one," he said. U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill said he doesn't expect the corruption investigation to implicate any other public officials. "I think this was a singular incident with one member of the Public Transportation Commission," O'Neill said. The indictment's 10 charges include bribery, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and lying to an FBI agent. Each carries a maximum penalty of five to 20 years. The probe began in September 2009. According to the indictment, Hondrellis met with an undercover informant and talked about forming a towing company to get on the rotation. Two months later, Hondrellis told the informant he had made a $2,000 loan to Gerald White, Kevin White's father. Gerald White, 64, died on May 23 of a heart attack. The loan, Hondrellis said, was to help Kevin White's family, not his father. Hondrellis told the informant that White, then chairman of the transportation commission, was "backing" him" in his efforts to get the towing company certified, investigators said. Over the next several months, the confidential informant met frequently with White, his father and Hondrellis, authorities said. Thousands of dollars in cash changed hands, and Gerald White received a Lincoln Navigator and enjoyed steak dinners and lunches paid for by the informant and an undercover federal agent who was introduced to the commissioner in April, investigators said. By January 2010, the towing company had been formed and Hondrellis named one of his drivers as owner to facilitate passage by the PTC. White told Hondrellis and the informant their application "should fly through" the transportation commission, according to the indictment. PTC records show the company, Tri-County Auto Towing Inc., was certified May 12, 2010. Kevin White told the undercover agent their towing company had also been added to the rotation, the indictment said. But the sheriff's office and Tampa police say Tri-County never applied for rotation and was never added to the towing list. Later, when the undercover agent suggested adding another towing business to the rotation, White said it would cost $10,000, investigators said. O'Neill said the government's case is buttressed with audio and video tapes of the conspirators meetings with the informant and FBI agent. White and Hondrellis' indictments are the latest bad press for the PTC, the only agency of its kind in Florida. Created by state law, the commission regulates taxicabs, limousines, ambulances, tow trucks, and other private vehicles-for-hire. Most recently, the agency has been criticized for hiring a director who didn't meet basic job requirements, hiring a lobbyist who had worked as a political consultant for White and forcing a free electric shuttle bus service out of business. Though there have been attempts in the Legislature to abolish the transportation commission, those attempts have been foiled by lobbyists for the agency and the continuing support of the county commission. The three county commissioners who serve on the PTC often receive campaign contributions from the companies they regulate. Transportation businesses donated at least $6,000 to Kevin White's 2010 commission race. Mark Knapp, a Temple Terrace City Council member who served on the PTC, said he couldn't believe it when he heard of White's arrest. "Why would you ask an individual to pay for something you can get for free?" Knapp said. For White, Wednesday's indictments were the culmination of a life on the edge. As a Tampa police officer in the 1980s, he was both praised in evaluations for his initiative and criticized for being overzealous at times. He won three elections in his political career on the Tampa City Council and the county commission, and raised campaign cash prolifically. But he went into bankruptcy twice during the 1990s and has threatened to file for bankruptcy again if he loses the lawsuit filed against him by the county. This year, White borrowed $91,100 to buy a second home in Riverview costing $143,300, despite being heavily in debt. When Judge McCoun asked if he was employed, White said he had a security business that was still in the "infancy stage."

Reporters Christian Wade, Tom Brennan, Keith Morelli, Josh Poltilove, Peter Bernard, Natalie Shepherd and Alex Orlando contributed to this report.

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