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White's friendship helps lobbyist

TAMPA - Victor DiMaio was on the verge of losing his job in June as lobbyist for the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission. DiMaio knew the commission's interim director had decided the agency was too small for a full-time lobbyist. "I said I wasn't renewing his contract," Cesar Padilla, the interim director, said later. But DiMaio had an ace in the hole: his long-standing relationship with the transportation commission's chairman, County Commissioner Kevin White. DiMaio earned more than $27,000 working as a consultant on White's campaigns for Tampa City Council and County Commission in 2003 and 2006.
On June 10, DiMaio stood before the seven members of the transportation commission to report that he and White had negotiated a new contract that would reduce DiMaio's salary from $60,000 to $36,000 a year. He asked the board for a motion for approval of his contract. The board unanimously approved it as a stunned Padilla looked on. "Cesar said he was kind of blindsided by that," White conceded. Government ethics experts say White's role in the hiring of DiMaio and renewing his contract violate generally accepted practices of good government: •The commission, created in 1983 to regulate cabs, limousines and other "vehicles for hire," had never hired a lobbyist until White suggested it needed one in October 2007. •While not legally obligated to bid out the lobbyist's job, the commission informally agreed in November 2007 to hire a lobbyist temporarily with the idea of putting a longer-term contract out to bid. That was never done. •Before DiMaio was hired, a PTC member suggested the agency could save money by using Hillsborough County's lobbyist to handle any bills the agency needed the Legislature to pass. But the county lobbyist says no one from the PTC ever asked for her help. •At the November 2007 meeting, the county attorney presented a proposed contract with DiMaio, telling the commission he "was requested" to negotiate with DiMaio. •Once hired, DiMaio failed to give Padilla an adequate accounting of his activities, according to e-mails from Padilla to DiMaio. His contract called for DiMaio to give monthly reports, preferably in writing. After nearly two years of employment, DiMaio had produced three written reports, two of which came last month at Padilla's insistence, public records show. The discussions between White and DiMaio about renewing his contract occurred while White was awaiting trial on a sexual harassment lawsuit. In August, a federal jury found White had sexually harassed his former female aide. In 2007, White admitted to state ethics violations for using campaign cash to buy expensive, tailored suits. No Apologies White makes no apologies for the way DiMaio's contract was extended. White said DiMaio made a "proposal" to keep working at a reduced rate, but he insists it was a board decision to accept the offer. "From what I gathered, he had spoken to commissioners on his own before the meeting," White said in a recent interview. At the June meeting, he said, "There was no pre-negotiation or anything else done on my part.'' County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who sits on the PTC, said DiMaio approached her before the July meeting about keeping his job at a lower salary. "I would not have supported it unless there was a huge decrease in his salary," Ferlita said. "Whether or not his services are warranted at the decreased amount, we'll just have to see based on his performance." DiMaio argues that he handled the matter correctly. "My contract is directly with the board," DiMaio said. "I told the board I'd like to stay on and I'd be willing to take a 40 percent cut." Other government agencies, however, handle contracts for professional services differently. Leon County Attorney Herb Thiele, who speaks regularly to local governments about ethics, said his county commission often enters into contracts that don't require bids. But before any negotiations take place, the matter is put on the county commission agenda and commissioners vote to designate a negotiator, often Thiele or the county administrator. After a contract is negotiated, it is put on the commission agenda once again. Commissioners can approve or reject the contract and even vote to go out for bids. Thiele said following those guidelines can remove a public perception that "something funny was going on." White's Idea Records show it was White, DiMaio's former political associate, who first suggested the PTC needed a lobbyist at its October 2007 meeting. White told commissioners he had talked the matter over with Padilla, who had been named acting director just a month earlier at twice the salary he had been making as the agency's chief inspector. "I feel we need to have someone on retainer for us that knows the layout of Tallahassee, knows the movers and shakers up there and already has an in," White told the board. During the ensuing discussion, PTC member and Tampa City Councilman Tom Scott suggested the agency could use Hillsborough County's chief lobbyist, Edith Stewart. "I thought it was reasonable for the PTC to piggyback on what the county was doing and save the money," Scott said Tuesday. "Plus I had some real concerns: I knew Vic DiMaio had worked for Kevin White on his campaigns." But Stewart said in an interview this week that neither White nor anyone else asked her if county lobbyists could help the PTC. Stewart said her office often analyzes legislation proposed by independent boards like the PTC and makes recommendations to the county commission. If commissioners decide a bill has merit, the county's seven lobbyists work on behalf of the independent agency's bill. Three of the seven county commissioners, including White, sit on the Public Transportation Commission. The other members are city council members from Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City. DiMaio Hired DiMaio's name first surfaced at the November 2007 PTC meeting. The commission's counsel, Assistant County Attorney Orlando Perez, said he had been "requested to work with DiMaio & Associates" on an agreement for lobbying and public relations services, according to records from the meeting. Perez now says he doesn't remember who asked him to draw up a contract with DiMaio. Minutes of that meeting show Scott once again asked whether Stewart's office could help, but the question was never addressed. DiMaio was at the meeting and addressed the board. "I've done some lobbying up there myself," he said, "so I'm very well experienced in this field ... give me a chance to prove myself in the next few months, and we'll see how it goes." The commission voted unanimously to hire DiMaio at $5,000 a month. White disclosed his prior relationship with DiMaio, but Perez said he didn't need to abstain from the vote. White handed the gavel to another member of the commission so White could make the motion to hire his former associate. The manner in which DiMaio was hired is sure to raise red flags with the public, said Judy Nadler, a senior fellow in government ethics at the University of Santa Clara, Calif. Citizens expect a competitive bid process in hiring to ensure that candidates' qualifications are scrutinized, Nadler said. "The public can look at (DiMaio's hiring) and make an assumption: 'Oh I know why this person was chosen: because he was the campaign (consultant).'" Nadler said. "That undermines the public trust." Legislative Experience White and DiMaio say their former relationship had nothing to do with DiMaio's hiring. It was Padilla, they both say, who reached out to DiMaio initially. Padilla confirms this, saying he knew DiMaio in 1999-2000 when he was a lobbyist for Gulf Coast Transportation, a taxi company. At that time, Padilla was chief inspector at the PTC. Plus, Padilla said, DiMaio had worked in Tallahassee before, most recently as an aide to former state Rep. Deborah Tamargo, R-Tampa, in 1997-98. "One of the reasons I went with him was that he was familiar with the process," Padilla said. "In the past, our former director did all that." During the two legislative sessions in which DiMaio lobbied for the PTC, he was successful in getting one of two PTC bills passed. In 2008, a local bill passed allowing the agency to do criminal background checks using the FBI's national database. This year however, the PTC's one bill failed. It would have given the commission regulatory authority over wreckers that do non-government, non-consensual towing. The bill also would also have done away with a requirement that the PTC director have a college degree. Padilla's lack of a degree has kept him from being named the agency's permanent director. E-mails obtained through public records requests show Padilla had problems with DiMaio's accountability. In March, when DiMaio was in Tallahassee for the legislative session, Padilla e-mailed him saying: "It would be nice to hear from you from time to time." DiMaio's contract called for him to provide monthly reports on his activities. Public records show he filed three written reports, but two came after a Sept. 3 confrontation with Padilla. An e-mail sent from Padilla's office on that date shows the interim director asked DiMaio to start submitting written monthly reports and it led to an argument. "I'm not very comfortable with people coming and going without us noticing what's going on even though the job gets done," Padilla said about the e-mail. DiMaio downplays the disagreement. "I don't punch a clock," DiMaio said. "I do talk, e-mail or call Cesar every day." Padilla said DiMaio has done good work for the commission, especially coordinating cab and limousine arrangements for out-of-town visitors during the Super Bowl in January. DiMaio said he "hasn't missed a beat" in his work for the commission. He is getting ready to resubmit the non-consensual wrecker bill when the Legislature meets in March. "I'm a self-employed person, I have no staff but myself," DiMaio said. "This was my biggest client and I was willing to take a huge cut in pay to keep doing the work the PTC needed."

Reporter Mike Salinero can be reached at (813) 259-8303.

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