Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White could be in hot water if the Florida Ethics Commission agrees with a Hillsborough County resident who complained White broke several ethics laws.
White said the complaint against him is a baseless “political stunt.”
James Shirk, a Hillsborough County civil engineer and political activist, filed an ethics complaint this week alleging at least 27 state violations stemming from a lawsuit White filed last year seeking to strike down the voter-approved transportation sales tax known as All For Transportation. A judge threw out White’s lawsuit.
“White has used his office to further this lawsuit against the very County he serves by improperly using the powers of his office to obtain tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, to compel public employees to further his case to his personal benefit, to attempt to unilaterally enter into legal contracts in his official capacity, to use his office to obtain gifts and violating the ban on gifts from political committees,” his complaint reads.
It also claims he violated Florida’s Sunshine Laws by omitting information from ethics commission filings, failing to provide requested public records in a timely manner and failing to disclose a conflict of interest to the board he serves.
Shortly after voters approved the All For Transportation referendum last November, White complained to fellow board members during a public meeting that he believed the new charter provision violated state statute. He later filed a lawsuit in his capacity as an elected official.
Shirk’s complaint argues White broke state ethics laws barring elected officials from individually suing the government for whom they work. White did not seek approval from the Board of County Commissioners to sue the county over the transportation tax charter.
In addition, the complaint alleges White directed a political consultant who conducts paid work for his political committee to coordinate legal action with Bascom Communications, a public relations firm that represented White during the lawsuit, and an aide in his public office. The complaint names Audie Canney as the consultant. Shirk alleges the coordination between parties constitutes a gift from his own political committee.
Shirk also claims White used county staff and resources “on multiple occasions.” He lists four occasions in November and December of 2018 in which White directed his staff to assist with the lawsuit. White’s official staff worked with Bascom Communications to produce documents for the case despite no documented arrangement with Bascom.
The complaint also lays out several possible disclosure violations related to receiving gifts and providing public records.
White did not disclose services from Bascom Communications as a gift. He also did not disclose all services Shirk said would be considered a gift from legal services White obtained from the law firm Baker Lopez Gassler. White did disclose services from his lead attorney, Chris Altenbernd, but he did not disclose services from at least two other attorneys Shirk claims “spent nearly two hours working on [White’s] case.”
The most recent disclosure forms also do not put a value on services rendered. Court documents show Altenbernd charges $400 per hour.
Shirk also claims White withheld public records. According to his complaint, another resident, transit consultant Kevin Thurman, requested all emails and texts related to White’s lawsuit. Thurman reportedly requested those documents in December and did not receive them until January. Further, the complaint argues White’s office initially withheld at least seven emails and text messages that were later discovered in another records request in March.
Lastly, the complaint accuses White of using Hillsborough County’s official seal for “impermissible purposes. That complaint is based on a press conference White held in a commission conference room last October in which he publicly opposed the transportation tax.
White spoke in front of the county seal. Florida law requires “express approval of the governing body” to use a county seal in communication. No members of the press attended the event, but it was later posted to YouTube.
If the Florida Commission on Ethics finds the complaint “legally sufficient” it will investigate further.
White’s complaint specific evidence for its claims including media reports, publicly available legal documents, Florida State Statutes and information available on various different website. Shirk included citations for all of his claims and attached relevant evidence supporting them in his 14-page complaint.
Shirk based some of his allegations on text messages and emails acquired through a public records request that he notes are available by request.
The ethics commission limits complaints to 15-pages. If it decides to investigate, the investigator would review all relevant evidence related to the complaint, the group’s website explains.
“Unfortunately, we live in an age where ethics complaints are used as political weapons. Any person can file an ethics complaint against any elected official for any reason, even if it is baseless. This does not mean that the Florida Commission on Ethics will find probable cause to even hear the complaint, much less ultimately uphold it,” White said.
“And, to be frank, that is exactly what we have here – a baseless ethics complaint has been filed by a known political operative because he is disgruntled over my asking the judicial branch of our government to determine whether or not the amendment to the Hillsborough County Charter that passed last November is lawful.”
Sarah Bascom, President of Bascom Communications, called the complaint “frivolous.”
“I donated my services directly to attorney Martin Garcia and we agreed to provide him with PR services on a pro bono basis,” she said.
Despite the long list of allegations, some might not fall under the ethics commission’s jurisdiction. The public watchdog group does not have authority in complaints related to public records or public meetings, which applies to some of Shirk’s complaint.