Higginbotham Profile

December 5, 2009

Allen Holt Higginbotham Jr. is the current Hillsborough County Commissioner presiding over District 4. He succeeded Rhonda Storms on the County Commission by defeating Democrat Lisa Rodriguez in 2006. He managed to raise $141,467 in campaign contributions that year. He maintained his position in 2008, when he defeated No-Party-Affiliated Peter Gifford (Higginbotham was the recommended pick of both the St. Pete Times and the Tampa Tribune that year). He upped the ante for his reelection, raising over $20,000 more in contributions than his previous campaign… $161,669.

Higginbotham is a 55-year-old, fifth-generation Plant City native – the son a preacher, who sites his faith as a major influence in his daily decisions. He and his wife, Devon, have been married since 1979. She runs a company called Archive Properties, Inc. (www.archiveprop.com) out of their home that helps custom design and build houses. They have two children together. Their daughter Kaylon Elizabeth is currently enrolled at Florida State University, and their son, Allen III, travels the world providing environmental services. He’s currently in Costa Rica.

A good majority of Higginbotham’s family life took place at 120 South Wiggins Rd. Plant City, fl 33566. He and his wife mortgaged $120,000 for that home from Chase Manhattan Bank on April 5th, 1996, a 20-year loan which they paid off on September 26th, 2002.

Raised on a farm, Higginbotham worked in agriculture for most of his younger years. Today, he continues to farm on a quite sizable piece of property he owns, located in unincorporated Hillsborough County at 6322 Barton Rd. Plant City, Fl, 33565-4826. He purchased the original piece of property in 2001 for $167,500. The property is now valued at just shy of $400,000. The main cause of this spike in value was a massive addition Higginbotham added in 2004. Between the two attached, single family houses, he has 5097 square feet of home. His property is zoned for pasture and Higginbotham uses it as a horse farm. He’s all paid up on his property taxes, though he was a day late paying the $5184.60 that was due on November 30, 2009.

After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science with a concentration in South American Government, Higginbotham went to work in Washington D.C. There he served as a staff assistant to a Congressman. This stint in public service did not last long. Higginbotham decided to move back to Florida in 1979, and he wound up in Orlando. In 1980, he acquired his real estate broker’s license (#204780) and founded Market Place Real Estate, Inc. (his broker’s license has been null and void since 9/30/1996). In 1991, Higginbotham sold his company and moved back to Plant City.

Now back in Plant City, Higginbotham continued to work in real estate, but he simultaneously began to dabble in politics. He was a Democrat until he switched over to the Republican Party in 1991. He credits President Reagan with this decision. “He [Reagan] made me wake up and realize my conservative values,” he said in a Tampa Tribune interview. He went on to volunteer with Jeb Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns.

In 1995, disaster struck Higginbotham. He was entertaining some real estate clients on a hunting trip in Alabama. They killed a deer and when they decided to set it up to be skinned, they threw it over a tree branch. This caused the tree to collapse, landing on Higginbotham, crushing his spine. He was now a paraplegic. He had little to no feeling from the waist down and doctors told him he would never walk again.

Rather than wallow in self-pity, Higginbotham used his disability as a source of motivation. Doctors were able to graft a femur into his back so he can stand and walk around on crutches.

“It’s been a source of humility, but also, purpose” Lex Taylor said. Taylor is one of Commissioner Higginbotham’s aides. “He is immensely focused.”

Focused indeed. Despite his injury, Higginbotham managed rehabilitate himself and hiked Montana’s Grinell Glacier. He tells the story of his hike, his accident, and his personal life in a book he wrote in 1991, titled By Faith, I’m Still Standing. The book is out of print, but you can still pick up copy of it on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/faith-Im-still-standing-paralysis/dp/0971305102/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259989169&sr=8-1).

In 2003, Higginbotham was elected the Chairman of the Republican Party of Hillsborough County. In the three years he served as Chair, he took the membership from 171 to over 500, making Hillsborough the largest GOP executive committee in the state of Florida. Also, he more than quadrupled the amount of money the Hillsborough GOP raised. He resigned as Chairman on Feb. 26, 2006 when he announced his intentions of running for County Commissioner.

Higginbotham is known as a quiet member of the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners. He has a reptutation for taking meetings with the residents of his district to determine his political direction.

“He’s delegated to make decisions on behalf of his community, and he takes that very seriously,” Rachel Lyons said, an Environmental Science and Policy major and Higginbotham’s intern. “He prefers the behind the scenes stuff to getting out there and doing it.”

“I’m not that interested in grabbing headlines because, oftentimes, they’ll grab you back,” Higginbotham said in a 2007 interview.

But he’s not quiet on all issues. Higginbotham was a vocal advocate for passing legislation that would ban County Commissioners from receiving gifts from anyone. However, perhaps not surprisingly, this idea didn’t sit well with his fellow commissioners. They eventually agreed to ban gifts from lobbyists, but that flame was sparked by Higginbotham’s idea. He was also the first Commissioner to flag items to be removed from the County Administrator’s budget. An excess, he saw, of nearly 10 million dollars.

Higginbotham was also an outspoken proponent for not giving pay raises to anyone on the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners because of the current state of the economy… including himself. Then again, when you are making a reported $91,843.65 a year (as of 7/2009), you can afford to go a little while without a raise. (Sidebar: even with his push, that is still a $351.52 raise from what he was making on 1/2009).

“His focuses are on smart economic growth for the county, being fiscally conservative with our money, and, if at all possible, not raising taxes,” Taylor said. “Then protection of the environment in an intelligent way, a manageable way, and a meaningful way.”

As an admitted environmentalist, Higginbotham is no political slouch. He serves as the Chairman of the Environmental Protection Commission and on the board of Tampa Bay Water, The Florida Aquarium, and the Agency on Bay Management. In addition, he served on the Council of Governments, the Friendship Trail bridge Oversight Committee, the Hillsborough River Interlocal Planning Board, the Public Transportation Commission, and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program Policy Board. But thats not all, he also serves as Treasurer of Plant City’s Protection and Advocacy Programs For Persons With Disabilities.

It seems as though you’d be hard pressed to find anyone with something negative to say about Commissioner Higginbotham. Lex Taylor describes him as “an incredibly good man, incredibly good hearted… [with] a tremendous sense of humor.”

He’s never been arrested (at least, not in the state of Florida), he’s not on the sex offender’s list, he’s got no criminal record… he doesn’t even have a traffic ticket. It’s almost too hard to believe that someone could be as wholesome as Higginbotham appears. Perhaps it’s true, what Rachel Lyons says… “He’s awesome.”

Below are the links to the public records I used to create this profile, as well as links to some of the web sites and articles I referenced. In addition, I acquired multiple biographies on Higginbotham from the County Center, as well as a Organizational Assignments listing. I combined this information with knowledge I gained from a interviews with Lex Taylor and Rachel Lyons. 

http://www.advocacycenter.org/news/newsletter-jan01/jan2001l.htm

http://www.advocacycenter.org/news/newsletter-jan01/jan2001l.htm

http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Aquagenix+completes+purchase+of+Aquatic+Right+of+Way+Control.-a018373516

http://www.hcpafl.org/CamaDisplay.aspx?OutputMode=Display&SearchType=RealEstate&ParcelID=212809ZZZ000003490901U

http://www.hillstax.org/taxapp/property_information.asp?pmid=4624363

https://www.myfloridalicense.com/LicenseDetail.asp?SID=&id=687838A8C59C438C6B8C2D7AD7FF3002

http://offender.fdle.state.fl.us/offender/offenderSearchNav.do

http://votehillsborough.org/CFElectionFilings.aspx?elect_id=21&office_id=82&cand_id=3986

http://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/bocc/commissioners/higginbotham.cfm

http://www.amazon.com/faith-Im-still-standing-paralysis/dp/0971305102/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259808026&sr=8-1

http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/buzz/2006_01_01_archive.html

http://www.stpetersburgtimes.com/2004/12/09/Columns/Hillsborough_GOP_has_.shtml

http://www.zoominfo.com/people/PersonDetailLimited.aspx?PersonID=2597959&lastName=Higginbotham&id=2597959&firstName=Al&searchSource=page&page=12

http://www.wmnf.org/news_stories/show/4116

http://news.tbo.com/news/metro/MGBSTQ58R6F.html

http://pushingrope.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.html

http://www.intelius.com/search-summary-out.php?ReportType=1

http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/editorials/article856836.ece

http://www2.tbo.com/content/2008/oct/12/co-for-commission-two-veterans-newcomer/

Below are some .pdf files of some of the public documents I used in this profile.

Higginbotham V Aquatic

Higginbotham buys land Warantee

hig satisfies chase

Hig pays off Mortgage

Hig borrows $120k in 1996

Advertisements

Going Once… Going Twice… Sold!

November 13, 2009

Well, I’m pretty sure this is the last Public Affairs Reporting blog I have to do. It certainly is bittersweet. I’ve seen so much and come so far. The final blog agenda item I had the pleasure performing (or was forced to… however you want to look at it) was learning how the purchasing process works in local government. So, I went to the old city hall, was redirected to the new city hall and achieved my ultimate goal.

Joe Benjamin, Purchasing Systems Managers for the city of Tampa, describes the job of governmental purchasing as “life in a fishbowl.” He uses this metaphor to relate the idea that the city is spending taxpayers money in a state where local governments are under strict scrutiny. Where and how to spend that money is narrowed down through a competetive bidding process. There are only two exceptions to this rule which take bidding out of the equation — if there is only one source that provides the required good or service, or in the case of an emergency.

The bidding process, as far as Tampa goes, is based on dollar thresholds. Some lucky government employees are issued Visa cards and, from a penny to $2000, they can spend to their hearts content as long as they obtain departmental approval first. Over $2000 up to $25000 is the same idea, however this is where this bidding process begins. From $25,000.01 to $100,000, it gets a little trickier. They require a formal advertised bid in the newspaper of a publicly open, sealed bid for at least a week. If the purchasing department wants to spend over $100,000, they have to obtain city council approval.

The specifications of the bids are filed within the bids themselves. Everything that is expected by the city of the would-be bid winners is contained in these documents. This filing process is maintained for the city through a third party company known as Onvia Demand Star (www.demandstar.com). I asked if Demand Star had to bid for that position, and Benjamin said no. He explained that the reason they did not have to bid is because they do not charge the city money, they charge the vendors who use their service to find city contracts.

There are two different ways bids and purchases are evaluated. For bids (or purchases) below $25,ooo, the purchasers must take the lowest bid (or price). If, for some reason, they wish to take a different bid (or price) for any reason, they must put that reason in writing and submit it to the department for review. This same process occurs when the purchase amount is over $25,000, however there is just more paperwork involved, as well as the advertising, possible city council approval, etc. Basically, they take the lowest bid and thats that.

Benjamin explained to me that RFP’s are quickly becoming the most common method of purchasing that Tampa employs. He kept saying RFP’s, RFP’s, until I eventually had to stop him to find out what that means — Requests For Proposal. The way it works, in a nutshell, is the city puts out an RFP which details the good or service they are looking for and asking companies what the lowest price they could give would be. The companies are then graded on the price they give amongst other criteria — which can include affirmative action compliance — and given a grade. It winds up being a certain percent out of 100.

Once again, usually they take the lowest bid, however, with RFP’s they aren’t required to and it allows them to negotiate with these companies like they are used car salesmen. Hence, their increasing popularity.

Once a company wins a bid and begins providing the service, they are monitored in two ways. The purchasing department monitors their insurance and their minority particpation, if its required. Then the department that purchasing contracted for the service being provided administers the rest of the monitoring duties. Purchasing relies on these department officials to be their eyes and ears — make sure the work is getting done on time, the companies are not messing things up, the project is within budget and that everything is going smoothly.

Affirmative action and bid bonds were the last topics Benjamin and I discussed. Both topics, he explained, are not nearly as prevalent as they once were. Not so long ago, affirmative action policy in the bidding process was far more stringent than it is now. All that remains of it is a clause within every contract that companies cannot discriminate based on race, sex, religion, etc. and if this type of activity is suspected, the city reserves the right to investigate. If the company is found to be discriminating, they can be barred. Bid bonds are only used in contracts where they city feels that there is a high level of risk involved. The city demands a certain percentage of the pay the company will recieve be held by their insurance company. If they company defaults in anyway on their contract, Tampa can recoupe that percentage from the insurance company.

Well, thats pretty much the long and short of the purchasing process. It’ll be sad to see these blogs go. We’ve spent so much time together. I mean, it’s not like I’ll never blog again, just not for this class. With that, I’ll say good-bye and good luck. It’s been fun. 

 

 

 

 

Subcommittee: Fight For Registration; Spectators: Fight To Stay Awake

November 5, 2009

Thomas and I teamed up again to tackle our first public meeting assignment. And, the meeting we chose to attend… the Animal Advisory Subcommittee meeting on pet registration compliance. Sounds exciting, I know, however, this couldn’t have been further from the case. As a matter of fact, if you were to look up exciting in the dictionary,  this meeting would be listed under antonyms.

The meeting took place at the Animal Services building on Falkenberg Rd. Upon arrival, we were shown to the area where the meeting was occurring. At first, when we located the congregation of subcommittee members, I thought we were in the wrong place. There was only four people sitting around a small meeting table that was decorated with highlighters, a Magic 8-ball and a plastic cat driving a dog catcher vehicle. This was unlike any public meeting I’ve ever witnessed. Regardless, we were in the right place.

The leader of the pack was the director of Hillsborough County Animal Services Bill Armstrong. He was quick to ask Thomas and me what we were doing at the meeting. Apparently, not many members of the general public show up at these things. We explained our mission, then Armstrong explained theirs. He said that the board members in attendance were part of a subcommittee of the Hillsborough County Animal Advisory Committee, which meets the fourth Wednesday of every month. He went on to detail the purpose of the night’s meeting as another member of the board simultaneously handed us the four-page meeting agenda.

Armstrong explained that the purpose of tonight’s meeting was to come up with ways to get more Hillsborough residents to register their pets. Only 30 percent of the 600,000 plus pets in Hillsborough are registered. Perhaps even more startling — that is the highest percentage of any Florida county. If the committee can get more pets registered, they can take in more money and avoid more layoffs in this rough economy.

The idea that I found to be the most legitimate and practical for raising pet registration numbers was agenda item three — “…developing the requirement for landlords to maintain a copy of the current pet registration for tenants.” This proposal would require landlords that allow their tenants to have pets, to keep a copy of their pets’ registration on file. If they can get this measure enacted, not only will it ease the amount of liability that pets present to landlords, but also it will force renters to register their pets, greatly increasing the percentage of registered pets in Hillsborough and the amount of revenue coming in to the Animal Services division. Furthermore, it looks as though this idea may come to fruition. 

When I spoke with Armstrong, he described the landlord/tenant proposal as “Armstrong’s work in progress.” Also, he mentioned something that struck me as interesting, and that is what is considered a “pet” for registration purposes. Only three types of animals fall into this category. There is the obvious, dogs and cats, and the not-so-obvious… ferrets.

Overall, it was interesting to see how a group of four people who open their meetings to the public (even though no one goes) can influence legislation that impacts our entire community. Though the subject matter was boring at best, and the meeting went on for over two hours, I’m still glad I attended. Now I know not to do that again. Ever.

If anyone out there wants to speak with Bill Armstrong, director of Hillsborough County Animal Services, you can contact him:

 

Bill Armstrong — 440 Falkenburg Rd. Tampa, Fl 33619 —

ArmstrongW@hillsboroughcounty.org — (813) 744-5660.

www.hillsboroughcounty.org/animalservices

 

As Seen On M.E.

October 30, 2009

Now that Thomas King and I had the courtroom assignment checked off our list, we had the thought of grabbing a public record while we were on our way back to campus. So, we did.

The only logical place for us to stop was at the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Office. Its close proximity to campus combined with its morbid undertone made it the perfect place for us to visit.

 We thought it was closed at first. How soon we forgot that we needed to buzzed into the building. The woman who let us in was the same woman we spoke to when we requested our records. She was quite pleasant. We told her we wanted the autopsy report for Billy Mays, assuming that with the high profile of his death, she probably already had copies ready to hand out — as if there was a dish filled with them right next to the free peppermint swirls. Much to our surprise, she didn’t know who he was. But, she was more than happy to go to her computer and look it up.

After a few minutes, she came back with the whole folder and told us that she was going to have to charge us 15 cents per page and that it would take a while to get us the whole file. We informed her that we didn’t want it all, we just needed a little. Once again, she was happy to help.

She gave Thomas and I one copy each of his autopsy report and the best part was… she didn’t even charge us. What a deal! I was now the proud owner of everything I could ever want to know about the fate of The Pitchman.

What immediately struck me as fascinating was that there was nothing redacted from his autopsy report, and I do mean nothing! It contained his social security number, his address, his wife’s name, her home phone number, her cell phone number and the cause of death (which, if I remember correctly, is only supposed to be available to the next of kin).

But, the craziness didn’t stop there… oh no. Turns out, William Darrell Mays (his full name) was a big fan of the pharmacy — both street and Publix. The official opinion of the cause of his death was, essentially, heart disease. However, a contributing factor to this was cocaine use. Going further, they found a rainbow of remnants of perscription drugs in his system. Hyrdocodone, Oxycodone, and Tramadol. Apparently, Mr. Mays was the life of the party (pardon the pun).

Perhaps the most impressive and exciting part of the autopsy report would be the five page section labeled “Description of Autopsy Findings.” This includes a detailed analysis of the cadaver of Billy Mays, inside and out. The head, face, eyes, nose, mouth and everything inbetween — literally — were thoroughly examined. So much so, that the autopsy report included this gem (which if you are squeemish or don’t have the sense of humor of a 3-year-old, you won’t appreciate this… so DO NOT read on):

“…the external genitalia are those of a normal adult uncircumcised man, with no injuries. The testes are descended into the scrotal sac and are unremarkable to palpatation.”

Need I say more. There are no secrets for the dead. At least you’re not around to find out what every0ne in Florida can so easily find out about you.

The King And I (Trial and Error)

October 30, 2009

Let me start this blog by making three statements:

1. I couldn’t decide on one title, so I used both.

2. While I am not proud of my propensity to procrastinate, it paid off. I now know that I get an A on this no matter what I write.

3.  I’m glad I get an auto-A because I went to the courthouse with Thomas King, a classmate/writer who is clearly better than I am. So, now I am not so worried about the comparison (although we did get the public record together as well, so there is that to consider on the next blog).

But I digress… Here’s how it went down.

Thomas and I carpooled together to the courthouse. We were supposed to travel with Krystel, who foolishly thought she could fit six people in her tiny “clown” car. So, after paying for metered parking, we walked past Lady Justice and into our destination.

Wandering for what seemed like hours, we sought assistance at every conceivable desk in the place. Finally, we bumped into a seemingly knowledgeable woman named Bryce. She had some choice words to said about our honorable professor. I was outraged. She instructed us to go to room 51A, that is where we’d find the felony trials.

My lack of sense of direction and attention span brought Thomas and I to a condemned level of the building that could have easily fit well in scene from Nightmare on Elm Street. We retreated.

So, we were left with no choice but to go back to square one… asking for help. I managed to find a guy, who found a guy, who knew where the traffic trials were occuring. Without hesitation, we left. Along the way, we bumped in to Krystel and Co., who lucked out by finding us. Sure enough, at the very last room of the 1st floor hallway, there was the traffic court.

They were churning out traffic offenders out like a well-oiled machine. 3 at a time. If you didn’t show up… Boom… $1000. Those who did show — jail time for some, house arrest for others, probation, suspended licenses and giant fines for the rest. 

Three things became abundantly clear to me:

1. Our justice system brings in mucho dinero for our city. I was amazed at how quickly hillsborough residents were racking up thousands and thousands of dollars worth of fines.

2. Judge Margaret Taylor Courtney —  is hot. Something about her attitude was exciting me. Plus, she was easy on the eyes. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t mind going back again.  And…

3. There is a lot of people who can’t speak English, who drive without the legal authority to do so. I was surprised to see how many of the “driving without a valid license” cases involved people who probably aren’t aware of what a driver’s license is.

Okay. I’ll take my A now.

Medical Examiner Office: Autopsy-Turvey World

October 26, 2009

I see dead people… Correction. I saw a dead person. Seriously. No joke. And, I was not at a funeral. I was at the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Office for the last of my wonderfully educational, Public Affairs Reporting field trips. It was there, in the autopsy area, that I had the morbid pleasure of watching as doctors nonchalantly removed an eyeball from a cadaver. As I breathed in the faint stench of death, I witnessed these doctors drop the eye on nearby table like a butcher with a cut of meat. It was quite surreal… like watching a live horror movie.

But I digress… The real reason we were there was not for a pre-Halloween spook, but to round off our knowledge of public records. And, who better to teach us than the sultan of stiffs himself, Dr. Vernard Adams? Adams has been the head honcho at the Medical Examiner Office since 1991. To me, his personality seemed a bit transparent. Meaning, if I were to met him on the street and had no idea who he was, I could guess, after few minutes of conversation, that this person has spent a lot of time around the deceased.

Adams serves as the custodian of records and maintains most the control over what information can be released from the Medical Examiner Office. He explained to us that, though he is the records custodian, he does not control the death certificates that he and his associates create. Those are controlled by the health department. He went on to detail the two types of death certificates that exist. There are those that do not contain the cause of death, which are immediately available to the public. Alternatively, there are those that do contain the cause of death, however, they will not be released to the public for 50 years. The only people allowed access to those records are the next of kin and public agencies for the furtherance of public business.

The Medical Examiner Office was an interesting place to say the least. As Adams gave us our guided tour, my A.D.D. took my mind to all sorts of fascinating places.

I remember when he showed us all the color-coded folders that held the records of so many deaths. I couldn’t help but think that I was destined to be one of those folders someday. Although, by the time my time comes, I’ll probably be a folder in Windows.

I remember when he showed us the room where they performed the toxicology tests and I remember him using these massive words that made me thankful that I veered off of my pre-med, collegiate path. In that room there was a man behind me who had on rubber gloves and protective glasses. He was performing operations with beakers and test tubes. I was beside myself with the coolness of what was going on. Were they cloning people here? We they making baby dinosaurs out of million-year-old DNA extracted from mosquitoes? Probably not. I watch too many movies.

Anyways, my trip to the Hillsborough Medical Examiner Office was a thought-provoking one. I was surprised to learn that most of my preconceived notions about what they do there were wrong. I thought that most people that die were not given a second look, however, more than  75 percent of deaths are treated there. Also, I assumed that everyone that passes through there gets cut open, however, only a small percentage of deaths require an autopsy. I guess I was wrong… dead wrong.

The Name is Andrews… Steve Andrews

October 17, 2009

Easily, my favorite Public Affairs Reporting field trip happened last Tuesday. My classmates and I traveled to News Channel 8. There, we absorbed the infinite wisdom of investigative reporter Steve Andrews. His speech garnered my full attention and I found myself preoccupied with listening rather than taking notes… a welcomed change.

“Mine the gems,” one of the many useful nuggets of wisdom that Andrews shared with us, like a broadcast Confucius. He was referring to being a good listener. As a reporter, people will approach you with stories. Some of them will be boring, some self-serving, some insane… but, some of them will be gold, and those are the ones worth mining. However, the only way to tell whether you have coal or diamonds, is to actively listen.

“You can be tough and you can hold people accountable, but you don’t have to be a jerk.” Andrews said, regarding his approach to confronting his subjects of interrogation. This is how he gets things done. He has taken on judges, police forces, insurance companies and countless other pinnacles of societal power. Sure, he pisses some of them off — most of them, probably — but he does it in a respectable way. Like a father scorning his guilty child, Andrews makes criminals upset at him, but more upset at themselves for what is undeniably their fault.

“Hold the powerful accountable. Help out the little guy.” As Andrews would tell you, that’s why he’s in this business. He told the story of Patricia Zimmerman, a woman denied a stem cell transplant she desperately needed. As he showed us the story, I am not ashamed to say, I felt the waterworks coming on. Through a simple email to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, Andrews was able to get them to “reconsider” Zimmerman’s claim. I would love to see the wording of that email because I’m sure it is a shining example of Andrews’ nice and tough philosophy.

Every story Andrews shared with us served as an inspiration for me as a reporter. It’s no wonder Andrews has taken home six Emmys for the work he has done.

He’s cunning. He’s professional. He’s methodical. He’s dignified. He laughs in the face of danger. He always gets his man. Steve Andrews is like the James Bond of investigative broadcast journalism.

Side Bar: This is one of Steve’s stories he showed us… it made national news overnight. You gotta see it!

Wii have a drug bust : http://www2.tbo.com/video/2009/sep/21/drug-task-force-a-time-for-work-a-time-21049/

The 11th Commandment… Follow the Money

October 9, 2009

On Tuesday, I was treated to yet another lecture in my Public Affairs Reporting class. This one was orated by Preston Trigg. Trigg serves as the Director of Administration and Special Projects for the Hillsborough County Tax Collector’s office — another agency that requires I pay them money.

Little did I know, Preston Trigg had already done something for me before he ever set foot in my classroom. He reduced the average wait time at the DMV from one hour to 16 minutes. I found it amusing that he mentioned this and that he was greatly responsible for it. It brought back a memory of when I first arrived in Tampa. I just moved from the other coast of Florida and I had to renew my tags. I vividly remember thinking “Wow, what a convenient system this DMV has.” They handed out tickets in a deli-like fashion and I was in and out of there in less than 10 minutes. Thanks Mr. Trigg.

Trigg spoke, like all of our speakers, about the use of public records. While he didn’t offer much new information to us, he did offer up some very useful tips on how to acquire and use them.

“Always follow the money,” Trigg said — a quote which I’m sure will show up in everyone’s blogs. It’s a pertinent mantra to remember. Basically, if you’re covering an agency, or anyone really, find where the money starts and where it ends. Ask for budgets, pay stubs, gift disclosures and the like, and you’ll more than likely find a situation in which something fishy is happening. It is astounding how dumb Florida politicians can be. With the presumption that they have no privacy in the eyes of the public, why they insist on doing dirty business is beyond me. It is a level of arrogance that my brain has trouble comprehending.

Trigg advised our class to always put our public records requests in writing. This way, if your boss ever challenges it, or you are denied a record you know you shouldn’t have been, you can fight back. He told us something else that I found very intriguing. When making a public records request, you don’t have to give your name or a reason as to why you’re doing it. But, if someone ever denies you a public record, they have owe you and explanation. So, basically, the government gives you the right to be pompous when making a public records request… Pretty cool, huh?

Beware: Political Dirt Flying Around, It’s Windy Outside

October 7, 2009

    Last Thursday I had the pleasure of absorbing knowledge from yet another guest speaker in my Public Affairs Reporting class. That speaker was William “Windy” March, chief political writer for the Tampa Tribune. While he lectured to us on the ususal — public records — his words were a bit more interesting. This was a whole new type of records we had yet to tackle… money and politics.

    Windy quickly locked me in to his words by covering something that I never quite grasped, but was immensely interested in because I’ve seen one too many mob movies. That something is money laundering. He described it as “A very important illegal phenomenon.”

    In a nutshell, money laudering — as I understand it — is hiding the acceptance of a significant amount of money under the guise of a seemingly orthodox source. Windy explained that, in the political realm, this is usually done through the use of “soft” money.

   And what does that mean?

   Glad you asked.

    Political campaigns are funded through two types of financial contributions — hard money and soft money. Hard money is funds given directly to the candidate. They are more difficult to manipulate and are subject to all contribution restrictions ($2500 max for federal, $500 max for state and local). Soft money, on the other hand, is money given directly to the political party and there is no limit on the size of the “donation.”

    Windy gave us a great example of how he and his team were able to use public records to expose illegal campaign financing during the 1996 presidential election. The man they caught was Mark Jiminez. Jiminez was illegally using the employees of his corporation, FutureTech, to disguise the soft money he was giving the Clinton campaign.

     Windy explained to us the ways in which this story came to fruition and, in that, exposed some great public records resources and information. The idea for the story came from one of his coworkers reading a NY Times article, which showed Jiminez as Clinton’s largest financial contributor in Florida.

    From there they used Sunbiz.org, a wealth of public record infomation on Florida corporations. Found out about his relationship with FutureTech.

    From there, they used OpenSecrets.org. Open Secrets is the site Windy said he uses “more than any other,” which doesn’t surprise me being that you can find almost anything about the details on anyone’s campaign. There, he was able to look up FutureTech’s employee contribution to the campaign which opened a whole new can of worms. Apparently, most FutureTech employees liked Bill Clinton enough to give him $1000.    

    From there, all it took was a trip to Miami to view some voter records. This was another interesting fact Windy presented. Most voter records are public, however, you can’t get a copy of them unless you are a political party. So, if you want to see them, here’s what you’ve got to do:

    You have to go down to the office — bring your laptop  — leave it behind a white line — cross that white line — view the records you want to see —  go back behind the white line — and type into your laptop what it is you’ve learned.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

   So, all in all, I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn from Windy. I’m absolutely certain I’ll be using this information for years to come.

Sidebar: I would like to end with this seemingly related quote from Don Henley’s classic hit Dirty Laundry because it’s been stuck in my head while I was writing this…

“Dirty little secrets, dirty little lies
We got our dirty little fingers in everybody’s pie
Love to cut you down to size, we love dirty laundry”

The County Center: 8th Wonder of the World

October 2, 2009

    “It’s one of the secret mysteries of the world. No one knows exactly what we do.” Those are the words of Pat Frank. She is speaking in reference to the Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office… and she couldn’t be more right.

   Frank serves as the Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller for Hillsborough County. If you are anything like I was, then you have no idea what that means. Allow me to attempt to clear the air.

    The amount of responsibility that Frank and her teams take on is astounding. Some, but not nearly all, of their duties include: 1. redacting (removing part of) and expunging (obliterating) public records. 2. filing and maintaining public records. 3. Keeping all of the evidence from every case on file. 4. Collecting all of the fees and fines, paying the bills for the county, and deciding how the rest of the money will be spent. 5. Assisting in the rehabilitation of juvenile law breakers.

    The list, literally, goes on and on and on.

    Now, Pat Frank, as the head honcho, is in control of all the money — a position known as Comptroller (in case you didn’t know what I meant earlier). That explains why, when I was unfairly given a speeding ticket, I had to make the check out to Pat Frank. Frank being the judge, jury and execution on county funds concerns me. It seems like too much for one person to handle. I feel like it leaves the corruption door wide open for some corporate fat cats to walk right through. Also, I’d imagine handling about 19 million dollars a year puts all sorts of crazy thoughts in your head.

    As much as I would love to touch on every one of the Clerk’s office’s duties, that would be impossible. But there is one final tidbit of information I would like to share. The amount of public records that are available at the County Center is overwhelming. They have everything. Part of the reason for this wealth of knowledge is that any public record must pass through there before it gets to its final destination.  

    Currently the Clerk’s office contains over 90 million public records from 1965 to about five seconds ago. Most of these records are available on their website www.hillsclerk.com, I highly recommend going on there and searching for what kind of dirt they have on you… you might be surprised at what you find.