Tampa Bay Archives - Florida Politics

Tampa Bay region under Phase I water shortage alert

Several Florida counties, including those in the Tampa Bay area, are now under a Phase I water shortage, which comes with the possibility of future watering restrictions.

During its board meeting Tuesday, the Southwest Florida Water Management District announced 16 counties affected by a Phase I water shortage. The counties are Charlotte, Citrus, DeSoto, Hardee, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Lake, Lee, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Sarasota and Sumter.

A Phase I water shortage alerts the public on possible forthcoming watering restrictions. It also requires local utilities to review and apply procedures for year-round water conservation and water shortage restrictions, including measures for reporting enforcement activity.

While Phase I water shortage order does not affect existing watering schedules, it prohibits “wasteful and unnecessary” water use.

In deciding to declare a water shortage and restrict water usage by the public, SWFWMD checks several factors, including natural water resource conditions and the viability of public supply.

Over two decades, the district has been working on developing alternative water supplies, and officials assure there is sufficient water available to the public, despite drought conditions.

April is one of the driest months of Florida’s dry season, which runs October through May. The SWFWMD website WaterMatters.org offers tips and suggestions to reduce water usage and encourage conservation year-round.

Dueling lawsuits embroil Tampa power broker Don Phillips, wife in fierce divorce battle

Tampa power broker Don Phillips

An epic divorce battle years in the making has embroiled Tampa Republican heavyweight Don E. Phillips.

Despite claims of a “devoted family,” Phillips and his wife Erin spent the past few years firing off waves of competing lawsuits, complete with dramatic accusations of computer hacking, identity theft, domestic violence, stalking and serial infidelity among others.

A North Carolina native, Phillips, 51, moved to Hillsborough County in 2003 and is the man behind Tampa-based Phillips Development & Realty (PDR), an influential firm building multifamily rental housing throughout the Southeast.

Phillips’ personal website describes him as the “son of a real estate developer who died in an airplane crash at the age of 37,” and that Don “was inspired by love and admiration for his father, as well as his father’s successes in the business, to enter the same career.”

PDR’s local projects include Tampa’s Casa Bella on Westshore, Phillips International Drive, and Tuscano at Suncoast Crossing In Lutz.

As his political stock began to rise, Phillips deftly played both sides of the aisle, switching parties briefly in 2006 to vote for Democrat Al Fox for Congress. His first donation in the Tampa area was 2004, for the County Commission campaign of Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat who would later become Tampa Mayor.

Buckhorn had once called Phillips a “breath of fresh air.”

But by 2008, according to a profile by the Tampa Bay Times, Phillips had “raised some expectations that he might be the next Republican power player in Hillsborough County.”

“He’s certainly stepped up to the plate,” said Jim Greer, then-chair of the Republican Party of Florida. “Don is someone who has been a supporter of the Republican Party not only financially, but from a grassroots perspective.”

At that time, Phillips’ office on the corner of Bayshore Boulevard and Platt Street also housed the John McCain for President campaign headquarters, as well as a satellite office of the Florida Republican Party.

Phillips “donated at least $70,000 to the state Republican Party and GOP candidates,” the Times wrote in 2008, resulting in then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointing him to the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority.

In 2011, Phillips hosted a fundraiser for Pasco Republican Will Weatherford, then a House Speaker Designate. Phillips had also served on the board of Enterprise Florida.

A 2013 article quoted him talking about Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who had a controversial relationship with Gen. David Petraeus.

Erin and Donald Phillips (Photo courtesy donaldphillips.com)

In 2005, Phillips met Erin Rachelle Willmore, now 37. Born in California, Willmore’s first marriage was to Cory Allen St. Clair of Rocky Point, North Carolina.

Records show that in 2008, Willmore gave $5,000 to the Heartland Values PAC, controlled by Phillips’ hunting buddy, South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune. The same year, Phillips also donated money to Heartland.

At that time, Phillips and Willmore were engaged and living together in south Tampa with the couple’s two-week-old baby and two children from Willmore’s previous relationship. Records show Phillips also had another child from an earlier relationship.

The couple married March 2009 at the St. Pete Beach home of prominent family law attorney Joseph Melendi. About two months later they bought home at 5905 Beacon Shores Drive costing about $2.1 million. Erin Phillips gave birth in 2011 to their second child, a boy.

Phillips’ personal website promotes him as a “devoted husband” with a “beloved family … of his wife Erin and their five children,” Brendan Allen (14), Collin Allan (13), Kodee Renee (8), Cole Edmund (6) and Cooper.

By 2015, however, the Phillips marriage began to show signs of serious strain.

Trouble in the Phillips household began in April 2012, when Don Phillips pleaded “no contest” to leaving a child unattended in a vehicle; he was also arrested for DUI July 2013. At that point, Don was serving on the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation and applied for a seat on the Hillsborough County Aviation Board.

On New Year’s Eve 2014, Erin Phillips surrendered her stake in the couple’s marital home, leaving Don as the sole owner.

In the first of two divorce proceedings, filed Jan. 9, 2015, Erin claimed Don promised to pay Erin $300,000 plus interest in early 2020 in exchange for her relinquishing her interest in the home.

Documents show the couple entered a settlement agreement, but Erin countersued Don, asking the court to set aside the settlement. Erin Phillips argued that she signed the agreement “under duress, coercion, overreaching by Husband,” a result of “fraud” and “deceit.” Erin added that the agreement was “manifestly unfair” since she was unaware of the extent Don’s assets, income or liabilities.

In addition, Erin claimed Don held tight control of finances; her job was to be a full-time homemaker, caregiver and to go with her husband to “events and business functions.”

Erin said it was indeed her who had asked for the divorce Dec. 12, 2014. After that, she said Don began to “stalk and harass” her. She also alleges that as Don tried to get her to reconcile, he warned of “consequences” if she continues with the divorce — threatening both suicide and “the life of a third-party” with whom Erin turned to for emotional support.

She also called Don a “serial philanderer,” having numerous affairs during their marriage and spending money on “paramours,” which included renting apartments for them and “lavishing them with expensive gifts.”

By March 2015, the Phillips agreed to postpone the divorce for two months; the court dismissed the case June 30, 2016, for lack of prosecution.

Nevertheless, by August 2016, the Phillips were back in divorce court, with Don filing this time in a case that is now ongoing. While Don requested the filings be placed under seal, court dockets show the case proceeding in a way similar to the first attempt — Erin again countersuing and asking the court to set aside the marital settlement agreement.

In a domestic violence injunction petition filed Jan. 26, 2017, Erin Phillips accused Don of hacking into her email, spying on her communications, including those with her attorneys; stealing her identity to get text messages and call histories from AT&T; putting a tracking device on her car, and installing tracking software on her computer.

The petition also alleges Don had “over 100 fire armes [sic]” saying he had made her feel she as if she was “in imminent danger of becoming a victim of domestic violence.”

A recent lawsuit, filed April 18 in Hillsborough County court, by PDF Assets of Florida — a company controlled by Don Phillips — accused Erin Phillips of gaining unauthorized access to corporate emails and digital records. The “presumed intent was to unlawfully gain leverage in the divorce proceedings to which she is a party, and to conduct unlawful clandestine unilateral discovery.”

The lawsuit seeks an injunction, as well as the return of all “misappropriated” information, and attorney’s fees.

‘Join the club’ — Tampa Airport CEO welcomes Tom Lee’s proposed audit

TIA chief Joe Lopano

Tampa International Airport’s chief executive officer welcomed the possibility of an audit as suggested by state Sen. Tom Lee last week.

“We get audited all the time,” Joe Lopano said last week at a meeting of the St. Petersburg City Council.

The Tampa Bay Business Journal reported Lopano was on hand to present the $543 million Phase 2 of TIA’s three-part expansion.

Council member Charlie Gerdes addressed Lee’s call for an audit: “I’m not asking this to ask you to defend yourself. What is that all about?”

“That’s the elephant in the room, right?” Lopano said, explaining airport officials “expect to be held accountable” for state money.

“The reality is that the state has given us a grant which we’ve been very grateful for,” he explained.

TBBJ notes that the state awarded $194 million in grants to develop SkyConnect, a mostly automated people mover project as part of Phase 1 of TIA’s master expansion plan.

“We expect an audit,” Lopano added. “We get audited all the time.”

Lopano pointed out that TIA is audited by the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration and both external and internal auditors.

“To be audited by the state is fine,” he said. “Join the club.”

Completion of Phase 1 of the expansion — costing $971 million — is scheduled for next year.

Lopano told the Council that Phase 2 will be less expensive than originally planned.

“It was already 5 years old,” he said. “And as you know the world changes a lot in five years.”

In that time, projected costs rose from $1.7 billion to over $2 billion, leaving airport officials to overhaul Phase 2 to make the project affordable.

“By taking some things out, we reduced the cost estimates by 20 percent,” Lopano said.

Phase 2 — now at about $543 million — includes $194 million for curb expansion and $121 million for the Gateway Development, a 17-acre site for hotels, office and retail space.

Jeff Vinik, Will Weatherford, Pam Iorio named to TECO board of directors

Tampa Electric Co. is adding five prominent Florida business and community leaders to its board of directors, including developer and Tampa Bay Lighting owner Jeff Vinik, former House Speaker Will Weatherford and former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.

In an announcement Tuesday, TECO parent company Emera Inc., the Nova Scotia-based energy conglomerate, said the new members are as part of a commitment to keeping the company under Florida oversight.

Emera acquired TECO in July 2016.

“Emera believes local directors who are community leaders are best-positioned to oversee that our utilities provide the service our customers desire,” the company statement said.

Board members guide both TECO and its natural gas utility, TECO Peoples Gas. TECO, one of Florida’s largest investor-owned electric utilities, services about 730,000 electric customers in Hillsborough and parts of Pasco, Pinellas and Polk counties.

Peoples Gas System, Florida’s largest natural gas distribution utility, serves about 370,000 customers across Florida.

Joining the board, effective May 2, will be:

Pat Geraghty, chief executive officer of Jacksonville-based Florida Blue (Florida’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan) and its parent company, GuideWell Mutual Holding Corp., where he serves on the board. He is the chair of the Florida Council of 100, a nonprofit group of community leaders who work closely with the governor and other state leaders on economic development issues. He is very involved in the community, serving on the board for MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation, as chair for United Way of Northeast Florida’s board of trustees and as a member of the Jacksonville Civic Council.

Iorio is president and chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. She has spent three decades in public service, including two terms as mayor of Tampa.

Rhea Law, chair of the Florida offices of Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney PA law firm and immediate past chair of the Florida Council of 100. She has held the top leadership positions in many civic and charitable organizations, including the chair of the University of South Florida’s board of trustees.

Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL) team. Together with Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, Vinik is a partner in Strategic Property Partners, a development company embarking on a $3 billion, 10-year redevelopment of southern downtown Tampa. Vinik previously managed the Fidelity Magellan mutual fund and Vinik Asset Management.

Weatherford is currently managing partner of Weatherford Partners, a private equity investment and strategic business advisory firm based in Tampa. He served four terms in the Florida House of Representatives, including two years as speaker, when he was the youngest speaker in America.

“We are delighted to have these five well-admired leaders join the Tampa Electric Co. board,” said Scott Balfour, chief operating officer of Emera Inc. and chair of the TECO board. “Their interest in serving is a testament to the outstanding reputation built by this company for over 100 years. This dynamic group will help guide Tampa Electric and Peoples Gas to a future of cleaner, sustainable energy and service for our customers and communities.”

Emera currently holds $21 billion (USD) in assets; 2016 revenues were nearly $3 billion (USD).


Business leaders lobby Tampa Bay-area lawmakers on regional transit

As for discussion over a proposed Senate regional transit bill for the Tampa Bay region, it’s all about timing.

A group of a dozen local business executives arrived for a lobbying trip to Tallahassee just one day after a contentious Senate committee meeting where three Tampa Bay lawmakers clashed over a bill seeking to overhaul the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA). The nonprofit Tampa Bay partnership arranged the trip.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that in a heated meeting of the Senate Community Affairs Committee, Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala watched in frustration as Republican colleagues Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Tom Lee of Thonotosassa amended the bill.

The bill, originally approved April 17, was changed to require legislative approval for any local spending proposal that would include a light rail system and also prohibit TBARTA from financing a voter referendum on light rail.

Many saw the amendments as a significant blow to the TBARTA’s independence.

“The timing could not have been better for this trip because the bill was at a critical point,” Tampa Bay partnership president Rick Homans told the Times.

Among those in the business delegation were Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik; University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft; Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes; Ron Wanek, founder of Ashley Furniture; Tampa attorney Rhea Law, as well as Tampa executives of TECO Energy, BlueGrace Logistics, the BayCare Health System, PNC Bank, Vology and Florida Blue.

While the group’s agenda included supporting Latvala’s transit bill, ride-sharing legislation, and a creation of a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Times noted that TBARTA received special emphasis.

“It’s not dead,” Homans said. “It’s very much alive.”

The amended bill now includes a feasibility study ahead of any forward movement of a light rail system, and would require approval by a majority vote of each Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) of the county or counties where the investment would be made. If a rail project is planned for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, for example, each of the affected counties would need to approve the project.

Also, any rail project must get preapproval from the Legislature – since Tallahassee would be fronting much of the money anyway.

“They were not poison pills,” Brandes explained. “They were logical, reasonable steps that would largely have to be followed.”

Former employee sued by Tampa activist Sam Rashid ‘won’t back down,’ lawyer says

Jacqueline Lilley former employee of Divine Designs Salon

A 21-year-old woman sued by Tampa political activist Sam Rashid is not “backing down,” and has filed a motion Monday to dismiss the case.

Rashid, who had twice resigned seats on prestigious boards after making controversial posts on social media, has filed suit in Hillsborough County against former employee Jacqueline Lilley for an alleged libelous” Facebook post in March.

Lilley worked as a receptionist at Divine Designs Salon in Brandon, which Rashid co-owns. She had written online that “the owners are thieves,” adding that workers at Devine Designs were ordered not to communicate with former workers who left on “bad terms.”

Lilley also urged staff there to leave.

Although the post just received over 39 comments and “liked” only about 14 times before it was taken down, Rashid, 55, sought damages in excess of $15,000.

However, in a statement, Lilley says she isn’t shying away from a fight. She has retained Tampa attorney Richard A. Harrison, who filed the motion Monday morning.

“Lilley spoke out about salon practices that she thought were unfair,” Harrison says. “In response, Rashid’s lawyer sent her a two-page, legalese-laden and very threatening sounding letter. Lilley took down her post after a few days, thinking that would resolve the matter. Instead, Rashid sued her for defamation. He’s also recently sued at least two other former employees of the salon.”

“This case isn’t about Rashid’s reputation,” Harrison says. “Rashid filing this lawsuit actually guarantees that more people will read Ms. Lilley’s comments than would ever have seen them otherwise.”

While the initial post was far from viral, Harrison notes that “well over 100 people” have now viewed, shared or commented on the Tampa Bay Times’ online article and accompanying social media post about the case.

“Let’s be clear,” Harrison adds. “This lawsuit is about bullying and intimidating the salon’s current and former employees, almost all of whom are young women … But that’s not really surprising coming from a man who called a successful professional woman a ‘taxpayer subsidized slut,’ is it?”

Harrison also brought up the irony of Rashid’s resignation from the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

In June 2014, Gov. Rick Scott appointed Rashid, then a high-profile GOP supporter, to the Hillsborough County’s Aviation Board. In September 2015, Rashid attacked Tampa businessperson Beth Leytham for her involvement in the “Go Hillsborough” transportation initiative, funded by the county government. Hillsborough had been considering increasing sales taxes to build new roads, improve bridges and expand mass transit.

In a Facebook post Sept. 2, 2015, Rashid called Leytham a “taxpayer-subsidized slut,” suggesting she had “intimately close relationships” with two county and one city official.

After a wave of outrage and mounting pressure for Scott to fire him, Rashid resigned Oct. 9, 2015. In his resignation letter, he did not apologize for making the Facebook slur.

“If Sam wants to fight this battle publicly, that’s what we’ll do,” Harrison says. “I’ll fight for the women who still have to deal with him and who fear for their jobs every day.”

As for Lilley’s bottom line, her lawyer quotes rocker Tom Petty: “I won’t back down.”


St. Pete fire crews called to Collier in wildfire fight

Nearly 7,000 homes are covered under mandatory evacuation orders in Southwest Florida as wildfires continue to rage just outside Fort Myers.

On Sunday, a St. Petersburg Fire Rescue crew was dispatched to Collier County to help battle the spread of fires in the area.

The Tampa Bay Reporter writes the St. Pete crew is part of a Bay Area Strike Team – composed of a district commander and five fire engines from the Tampa Bay area. Either three or four firefighters will staff each engine, and they are expected to work in Collier for 72 hours.

Accuweather reports the 30th Avenue fire is only 10 percent contained and has burned 5,500 acres so far. Fires destroyed nine homes.

Another Clearwater competitive bid error proves devil is truly in details

After awarding more than $16 million in the past decade to consultants without going through competitive bidding, the city of Clearwater had finally corrected a gross misunderstanding of Florida law governing the process.

While that may be indeed admirable, another potential problem could be on the horizon, as small print in a recent Request for Qualifications for Clearwater consulting services could lead to big headaches for the city.

Florida law has allowed governments to hire professional services — such as architects and engineers — without competition, but only if total project construction costs are less than $2 million.

Last year, officials in Clearwater corrected a misinterpretation of the law had continued for more two decades. Previously, as the Tampa Bay Times noted, Clearwater city leaders believed that if design contracts met another requirement in the statute — an agreement for particular work that has a fixed end date — design companies chosen with no bids, even for construction projects over $2 million.

“We weren’t trying to do anything wrong,” Director of Engineering Michael Quillen told the Times. “It’s confusing language in the Florida statute.”

Citing a confusion in the language of the law, Attorney General Pam Bondi said, “an apparent ambiguity exists” for when governments can use a firm on a continuing contract. It all rested on the word “or.”

According to the law, governments can give contracts to a company when construction costs are under $2 million; if design fees are less than $200,000; or for specific work that has an end date.

The word “or” implies a choice, Bondi asserted. It led to governments “circumventing the selection process,” when the $2 million limit should apply in all cases.

Good catch, but that might not be all.

In the Florida Statutes, there is the Consultants’ Competitive Negotiation Act (CCNA), a law that applies to the procurement of certain professional services, such as architecture, engineering, landscape architecture and the like.

CCNA instructs agencies to use a multistep process to select professional services — more than a simple dollar figure — where the qualifications of those who will provide the service are as important (or more) than just the costs.

Among the factors to be reviewed in qualifying firms, the agency has to consider the capabilities, adequacy of personnel, past record, and experience.

In these cases, the lowest bid is not necessarily the best way to go. Assigning a dollar figure to intangibles like experience and qualifications works against the intent of the CCNA.

It is for that reason a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) from the City of Clearwater raises more than a few red flags.

On March 30, the city issued an RFQ for an engineering firm to offer consulting services for its Wastewater Collection System Master Plan.

The company selected would help update the Clearwater’s plans for the wastewater collection system, which currently includes approximately 8,287 manholes and 389 cleanouts; 1,951,179 feet (370 miles) of gravity sewers; 199,811 ft. (about 38 miles) of primary force lines and 73 pump stations. The system has three service areas associated with the city’s three water reclamation facilities.

The proposal format gives very detailed instructions for interested firms, on the format, experience, qualifications and technical expertise.

Buried on Page 16, however, are specific criteria:

— “Schedule to complete the Master Plan including estimated number of hours per task, by personnel/position.”

— “Project Methodology. Demonstrate project understanding and ability of proposed approach to meet the needs of the City. Provide a detailed work plan, including a tentative schedule to complete the Master Plan including estimated number of hours per task, by personnel/position.”

Each notation attempts to put a number on something subjective, which is forbidden by the CCNA — and Florida law.

Companies under consideration could manipulate such by-task estimates, handing the city a shortcut in the bidding process by enumerating what is not supposed to be quantifiable.

All it takes is for the Clearwater screening committee to use that number, which is only an estimate and can be lowballed, to give an unfair advantage to the “lowest” bidder.

That was exactly what lawmakers sought to prevent when passing the CCNA in 1984, to keep from throwing good taxpayer money after bad when a winning bid turns out to have unreliable qualifications or expectations.

It should be noted the criteria with theses phrases appear in a single Clearwater RFQ (so far), and it only pertains to a section of the request worth 20 points out of a possible 100. But even a slight, intentional change in that number could prove just enough to tip the scales for one company over another.

And for Clearwater, after 20 years circumventing the legally required competitive bidding process for certain city projects, the devil is truly in the details.

Pinellas nursing home operators worried about impact of payment system

Leaders from Pinellas County nursing homes joined local residents, families and advocates to voice concern over a prospective payment system (PPS) plan under consideration by the Florida Senate.

Pinellas County has 69 nursing homes, of which 39 (57 percent) could lose money under the Senate budget plan — potentially more than $13 million.

 “On average, our facility has a Medicaid census of close to 70 percent, which translates into 172 seniors, and under the proposed PPS system, we would lose $1.7 million — this is a cost we simply cannot afford and one that would be devastating to our core mission of caring for the sick and dying,” said Kip Corriveau, director of Mission at Bon Secours St. Petersburg Health System.  “I ask lawmakers to prioritize quality care for our state’s most vulnerable and fragile seniors, whose families have entrusted their care to us by deferring the proposed PPS system until a fair solution that truly cares for seniors can be reached.”

Three of Pinellas County’s largest skilled nursing facilities — Bon Secours, Mease Manor and Menorah Manor — have opposed the PPS model, arguing it would negatively affect local nursing homes by shifting resources from high-quality nursing home communities to primarily lower-quality facilities.

“Menorah Manor is a mission-driven, charitable, nonprofit, faith-based organization that strives to provide the highest standards of care, and our doors are open to everyone — regardless of ability to pay, which means our Medicaid census on average is roughly 65 percent,” said Rob Goldstein, CEO of Menorah Manor.

“Yet, under the PPS plan included in the Senate budget, our facility will lose nearly $1 million when the transition funding runs out,” Goldstein added. “Moreover, this proposed PPS plan lacks any requirement that providers who receive new money under the plan have to spend it on care, programs or services.

“I respectfully ask, on behalf of the residents we are committed to caring for, that the legislature rejects this plan.”

Mease Manor president and CEO Kent McRae added: “Mease Manor is focused on the delivery of high-quality nursing home care and we oppose the proposed PPS plan, as it will have a negative impact on the quality of care we provide to our residents. Under the plan in the Senate budget, Mease Manor stands to lose nearly a quarter of a million dollars each year. Losses like this will negatively affect our nursing home, staff, residents and their families.”


Charlie Crist adds voice to those calling for Frank Artiles’ resignation

Congressman Charlie Crist also wants Frank Artiles gone.

“The racial slurs used by Sen. Artiles are deeply offensive to me and the community I represent,” said the St. Petersburg Democrat and former Republican governor in a short statement on Thursday.

“He should restore the dignity of the Florida Senate by immediately removing himself from it.”

Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County, made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night.

Artiles also used a variation of the “N-word,” referring to her and to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President.

Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Thurston has lodged a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. An investigative report by General Counsel Dawn Roberts is due next Tuesday.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons