There is “abundant evidence” that Hillsborough’s Public Transportation Commission is “playing fast and loose” with Florida’s sunshine laws, according to a Sarasota lawyer who has sued the county’s beleaguered regulator of taxis, tow trucks and other vehicles-for-hire.
The suit, filed by attorney Andrea Mogensen, has once again brought to light text messages among county officials that appear to show their attempts to influence public perceptions about how they deal with ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft.
Newly disclosed texts from Hillsborough Commissioner Victor Crist come a whopping nine months after Mogensen first requested all communications from then- PTC Executive Director Kyle Cockream. Mogensen later filed the suit after she says the PTC didn’t produce all of the requested records.
Cockream, who resigned his PTC post at the end of 2016, has since come under criminal investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for allegedly wiping clean his electronic communication devices. Meanwhile, state legislators are considering abolishing the PTC.
Mogensen says the PTC’s board and staff are “making a mockery” of the state Public Records Act, acting with impunity and intentionally thwarting her right to obtain access to public records.
The Sarasota lawyer has asked the judge to order PTC officials to submit sworn statements to the court about whether they have produced all of the records that she originally requested.
The new texts show a clear effort by Crist and other PTC officials to generate good press among local media outlets, including the Tampa Bay Times, as they negotiated new regulations with Uber and Lyft last year.
“Let’s see if we can’t mold in shape and encourage a good editorial supporting our efforts to move forward with striking a reasonable compromise that’s good for all parties involved including the riding public,” texted Crist one morning.
“It would be good if we could get them to do a positive editorial, supportive of our efforts to move forward and not focus on our tactics,” Crist texted Cockream. He added: “Sometimes it takes extreme tactics to move unwilling players to the table and forward.”
Victor Crist says the only reason those records that didn't make it to Mogensen's desk was because of a simple administrative error.
Crist tells ABC Action News that Mogensen was one of several people who made the same request for public records, and while most received all the records requested, Mogensen's batch lacked some extra messages only by accident.
Crist says that as soon as the mistake was discovered, it was fixed, adding he has been supportive and cooperative of any investigations and has nothing to hide.
"I take great deal of pride in being detailed," added Crist, citing ongoing litigation as the reason he could not talk openly about specifics in the case.
Cockream was accused of --- and later admitted --- working with local taxi companies, which he was supposed to be regulating, to conduct a sting operation on Uber and Left drivers, ticketing ridesharing drivers at the Tampa airport.
In a public meeting before his resignation from the PTC board, Crist criticized Cockream's sting.
An open-government advocate says she finds what Mogensen has uncovered so far about the PTC to be disturbing.
“I am extremely troubled and agree with the assessment that the PTC is playing fast and loose with our public records law,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.
“It doesn’t make sense, frankly,” Petersen told ABC Action News, adding “it could well raise questions about intentional violations of the public records law.”
Crist’s apparent delay in making public records available to the public would make him the third Hillsborough commissioner to be accused of failing to respond fully to requests for public records.
Commissioners Sandy Murman and Ken Hagen were interviewed just this week in a state ethics investigation of how contracts were awarded for a public-relations campaign to pass a 2016 tax referendum for local transportation projects, known as the Go Hillsborough project. Both commissioners were accused of denying the existence of certain records of their communications, which they were later forced to produce.