Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ken Hagan: How Did We Get Here?

As reporters, we never want to be part of the story.  But let's face it: Ken Hagan's feud with me reached mainstream comedic proportions last Friday, when he stood in front of two dozen cameras and said he wouldn't answer my question regarding what kind of financing county officials were discussing behind-closed-doors.

Then, in a well-choreographed exit at the conclusion of the press conference, Hagan scurried to the back door and had a consultant restrain me while he sprinted to a county car (with chauffeur) awaiting outside.

Many of you have asked me in recent days how we got here.  Well, it all started early on in the stadium saga.

Since Hagan self-appointed himself lead negotiator for Hillsborough County on the Rays-to-Tampa effort in 2010, I've been asking watchdog questions about how the cash-strapped county will pay for it. 

If you don't think those are important questions, talk to taxpayers in Miami.  Or in Cincinnati.  Or in Cobb County.  After all, Hillsborough County already is failing to fund necessary roadwork and won't spend money on much-needed transit.

Which is why, several years ago, I identified how Hagan was shifting from the conservative tax hawk that got him elected in 2010.  He started talking more about offering the Rays incentives to dump their partners in St. Pete and come across the bay.

Hagan pushed back, claiming he never said "no public dollars" for a stadium...except the proof several different places.  Then he did it again in 2013.

There were other key moments in our professional relationship:

2015 - Connections to political consultant & public records problems: I aired the product of a year-long investigation into how a closely-tied political consultant and lobbyist, Beth Leytham, appeared to use her relationship with Hagan and other politicians to exert influence on big government deals behind-the-scenes.  Hagan didn't like the story, and also failed to comply with public records requests, ultimately getting rid of his cell phone before sheriff's deputies could investigate what happened to his text messages.

2016 - Secret stadium negotiations: I took to Facebook to call out Hagan and others for their broken promises on transparency. 

2017 - Hillsborough Man of Mystery: It was a chance to catch up with the commissioner about all the issues he wouldn't return my calls on: secret stadium funding, public record problems, free tickets he didn't disclose, and handouts for Hollywood productions.

2017 - The pop-up video: We tried to get real answers to real questions...but instead, the commissioner resorted to a well-rehearsed line about "irresponsible and misleading reporting"...16 times.  So naturally, we posted the entire video.

2018 - Ybor City announcement: After Hagan admitted leaking news of the Ybor deal to a friendly news outlet back in October so I didn't get it first, I've broadcast a series of Hagan-related investigations based on public records, including all the campaign money he's received from the individuals who stand to gain from the secret stadium dealings.

I still can't figure out who is giving Hagan his advice, but I'd contend its not very good advice.  It's not just my stories, but his fellow commissioners are distrustful and his "partner" in this dance, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, called him "bush league" and a "minor league politician."

Anyway, if you really want more, here's a few other links you can kill your work day with:

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

What the Hell Just Happened? Rays' Ybor Press Conference News Pt. 2

Even though Friday's Rays-to-Ybor pep rally press conference produced few surprises, there was still too much to unpack in one blogpost.  So, after "What the Hell Just Happened - Pt. 1," here are a few other nuggets worth recapping this weekend :

Sternberg on opening team's books
In the wake of the Miami Marlins boondoggle, there's good reason to want team owners to come clean, be transparent, and open their books to show actual need for public subsidies.  So I asked Stu Sternberg Friday if he would be open to the idea, as teams such as the Cardinals have done in the past.  He politely said, "no thank you":

His reasoning was that the team's books had been "opened" in 2008-09, via leak.  Of course, MLB has grown by the billions since then, especially with the growth of its monstrous digital empire.  And revenue sharing has increased as well.  But it's easy to pretend like those revenues don't exist when you've got a shiny new vision of a ballpark to promote!

Sternberg on new stadium's effects on payroll
I mean, that's why the Rays want a new stadium anyway, right?

Hagan's response to my questions
Then, there's Ken Hagan, who surprised (most of) the room full of journalists Friday with this response to the question of what kind of tax revenues are being discussed behind-closed-doors:

But that isn't an acceptable answer when the commissioner still hasn't talked about what kind of public dollars he's eyeing in his now eight-year-old stadium campaign.  Transparency is key when hundreds of millions of tax dollars are on the table.

So, as is typical in a press conference, we went to Hagan afterward for follow-up questions.  He raced out the back door, and had a consultant restrain me from leaving the building:

I don't see it as the "feud" that Mitch Perry described it as in this weekend story, but at the end of an interview with 620 WDAE-AM Friday, Hagan took an unprovoked shot at the "arrows and haters, one (of whom) was at the press conference today, as a matter of fact."

The hosts of the show, longtime radioman Ron Diaz and former sports journalist JP Peterson, had just finished applauding Hagan, specifically, for disrupting St. Pete's contract with the Rays, when they confirmed that I was the "hater" he was referring to.  Hagan then added it was "TMZ-like misleading and irresponsible reporting."   Still waiting to hear what exactly he found so misleading and irresponsible.

Hagan on Buckhorn's "bush league" comments
In that same WDAE interview, Hagan laughed off Mayor Buckhorn's Thursday comments, where he referred to Hagan as a "minor-league politician" and "bush-league" for leaking the Ybor City news (again) without consulting his long-time partners in the effort.

But the relationship didn't seem warm Friday.  Hagan also said there hadn't yet been "any real discussions on the financing elements," seemingly a contradiction with Buckhorn's Friday comments that "7 or 8" different financing mechanisms are being eyed.  Hagan's comments, after eight years of courting the team, seem either disingenuous or financially reckless.

Finally, Hagan said in the interview that "I’ve said for 8 years repeatedly that we’re not going to raise taxes."  He actually campaigned 7.5 years ago on the promise of "no public dollars" at all for the stadium, but his views have shifted quite a bit since 2010

He seems to be pushing a stadium subsidy package that would cost more public dollars than Raymond James Stadium:

Buckhorn on Rays' "extortions"
Three years ago, Mayor Buckhorn said the Rays will "use every extract - some would say extort - the most money from the public."  I asked him if he still believed that:

Buckhorn has been more forthcoming than Hagan in talking financials...probably because he started pulling back from his once-cheerleader-in-chief role back in 2013.  He said Friday fees and taxes that hit tourists and ticket-holders will be prioritized over those that affect residents.  But the Rays will not be a fan of using things like naming rights and ticket taxes for construction.

That $800 million stadium figure and transparency
I also asked Sternberg if he felt he was living up to the franchise's promise to be transparent through the stadium process.  He said he did.

But, it also feels he has been throwing around $800 million (along with his $150 million suggested team contribution) as nothing more than sticker shock numbers to set an opening bar for public subsidy expectations.  But he knows a stadium isn't happening if the cost doesn't come down and his contributions don't come up.

So let's reset this conversation at $600-650 million, since the team doesn't need a retractable roof. The Tampa Bay Times' Marc Topkin just reported the Marlins had their roof open for only six games last year, and 50 games in their six years at Marlins Park.

With roof technology advancing (see Falcons and Vikings' stadiums), the Rays will be looking at a fixed, translucent roof to save on the mechanics of expensive retractable technology.

Field of Schemes on the big picture
Neil deMause writes, "This is right out of the standard stadium playbook: Make a big deal of announcing a site, get everyone debating whether it’s the right site and what it would mean for fans...and hope no one notices that you still have at minimum a $400 million funding gap."
In any case, feel free to debate the pros and cons of the Ybor City site, but try not to get distracted from the real issue here: Stuart Sternberg wants a new stadium, and wants somebody to pay for it who isn’t him. Because forgetting about that while staring at a shiny stadium site is exactly what he wants you to do.
It may be working. Every headline this week has been, "who will pay for it," rather than "should we pay for it?"

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Friday, February 9, 2018

What the Hell Just Happened? Rays' Ybor Press Conference News Pt. 1

So the Rays' Friday "news" that they want to play in Ybor City was actually very little news, and much more dog-and-pony show, aimed at building support from the business well as an appetite for public spending from taxpayers.

But if you were hoping for more details on what a stadium would look like, when it might get done, or how the heck anyone would pay for it, you're out of luck. 

The elected and community leaders running the press conference didn't really address financing, and when I asked the point man for the negotiations, Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan, he sprinted out the back door.

Video posted to Twitter, or check out my 5pm report on WTSP here:

Elsewhere in town, the immediate coverage romanticized how great a new Ybor stadium could be, and the Times' editorial board heralded the day as a "significant achievement."   Business leaders Ron Christaldi and Chuck Sykes penned an op-ed celebrating the "regional approach", even though I'm pretty sure Hillsborough and Pinellas never worked a day together on trying to keep the Rays. 

But then there was Times columnist John Romano, handicapping the chances of an Ybor stadium happening at just 36%.  His reasoning: money.

The only guy who seemed willing to talk about financing was Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who said "7 or 8" different funding streams may be necessary to help get the public financing done on a new stadium.  And since he said MLB teams try to "extort" cities, if the Rays get too greedy, Tampa will have to just "let them walk."  I didn't get the feeling he and Hagan weren't yet BFFs again.

By the way, here's my link for the 14 different ways Hillsborough Co. could lean on tax dollars to fund a new Rays stadium.

Finally for tonight, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman is right - if the Rays don't get what they want in Tampa, there's a good chance they come right back to St. Pete, where hundreds of millions in public financing is already waiting for them.

I'll post more about what Stu Sternberg & others said.....over the weekend.

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Buckhorn Calls Hagan "Bush League" After Commissioner Goes Lone Wolf

So, once again, Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan goes all lone wolf, leaking news of a Friday Ybor City stadium press conference to a local sports reporter he knew wouldn't ask tough questions about secret negotiations, troubling stadium situations in nearby cities, or how many tax dollars will be asked on this project.

That hasn't gone over well, with several county commissioners venting to me this week about Hagan's lack of transparency, and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn UNLOADING on Hagan for keeping him out of the loop for a second time in three months, calling the commissioner "bush league" and a "minor league politician."

I'm not expecting much real "news" from tomorrow's press conference, since we already knew the Rays were negotiating financials with Hillsborough and they'd love to move across the bay if someone will build them a stadium.

But here are the tweets that stand out from a busy evening:

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Hagan Cashes in on Stadium Negotiations

Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan, who assumed the unofficial role of chief Rays stadium negotiator for the county, is trying to strike a deal that would turn hundreds of millions of public and private dollars into a financial win for all parties involved.

But his campaign account is already seeing a windfall, as numerous executives and developers involved in the high-stakes negotiations have cut checks to Hagan in recent months, campaign finance records show.

As Hillsborough County was racking up huge bills in 2017 on outside legal counsel through firm Foley & Lardner - $24,000 per month during the final third of the year – messages obtained by WTSP show Kami Corbett, an attorney and lobbyist for the firm, was coordinating a Hagan meeting with the firm’s partner, Bob DuPuy.

Less than a month after those April communications and the planned meeting, records show DuPuy, who was also the former COO for Major League Baseball, then cut a maximum-allowable $1,000 campaign donation to Hagan. DuPuy also sent Hagan a $1,000 check in 2013, just before Hillsborough County hired his firm.

Hagan also received a series of seven $1,000 campaign donations from companies and family members tied by Darryl Shaw this past summer; Shaw is an Ybor City developer, who, according to text messages obtained by WTSP through public records requests, was discussing land prices during those same summer months with Hagan and the county’s outside counsel.

This past June, Rays owner Stu Sternberg also sent Hagan a $1,000 check. And according to Hagan’s ethics disclosures, the Rays gifted the commissioner a “suite with food provided” at an Atlanta Braves game in August.

Representatives from Foley & Lardner did not return requests for comment Tuesday. When Shaw was contacted about his donations in August, he declined comment.

Commissioner Hagan again failed to respond to a request for comment this week; he said he would no longer talk to me in October “due to your irresponsible and misleading reporting.”

He repeated that phrase 16 times.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Surprising Bills - and Texts - From Hillsborough’s Rays Stadium Attorneys

Hillsborough County has now spent nearly $400,000 on outside legal counsel in its quest to lure the Rays over from St. Petersburg, and public records indicate the two firms it now employs appear to be not only advising the county, but also negotiating on its behalf -- and possibly withholding records related to the discussions from public view.

Billing records show the county is now spending an average of $24,000 a month on stadium-related legal consulting to Foley & Lardner LLP, which has billed the county more than $300,000 in the last three years.

Law firm O’Melveny & Myers LLP, which now employs former Foley attorney Irwin Raij also started collecting county checks in September for Raij’s time, billing Hillsborough County $58,524 over the final four months of 2017.  It is not clear how many hours a week Raij, a respected sports business attorney, is spending on the project.

I repeatedly requested public records related to stadium discussions from County Commissioner Ken Hagan, and after numerous responses indicating none existed, a county attorney produced a series of text messages and emails between Hagan and Raij from the commissioner’s personal phone and email accounts.

Those messages reveal a pattern of private meetings and behind-the-scenes negotiations on a project that could include hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies.   One text, sent from Raij to Hagan on Nov. 14, references a “marked up Rays document,” which has not been turned over.

Other texts between Raij and Hagan coordinate negotiations with local land owners, as well as the county’s response to media questions about the prospective new Tampa stadium – a surprise to several Hillsborough County commissioners I spoke to.

“My concern right now is the lack of transparency,” said Commissioner Victor Crist.  “I’d love to see the Rays playing in Hillsborough County and I think the (proposed) site in Ybor City is a great location with lots of opportunities for expanded development.  But the board needs to be kept in the loop.”

Florida’s public records laws require most records Hagan creates to be turned over when requested by any member of the public, including documents Hagan may create and later give to an attorney.

But few records have been produced in response to my requests, even as multiple county staffers have confirmed the existence of certain documents that Hagan's office never turned over. 

Hagan has a long history of refusing to turn over public records.

“The cost (of legal fees) is shocking because its not something that we’ve discussed at the board,” Crist continued. “I don’t think we anticipated it would take this long (or) cost this much.  I think we’re going to have to get some answers and take a closer look at where do we draw the line...a good briefing is long overdue.”

Foley & Lardner has been on legal retainer with the county since 2014 at the cost of $4,500 per month, plus an additional $395 per hour in attorney fees and expenses related to travel. 

The $400,000 in outside legal bills over the course of three years are in addition to the countless hours county staffers have spent on developing a new stadium plan for the Rays.  But even those resources pale in comparison to the subsidies the Rays have suggested might be necessary to get a stadium deal done in the cash-strapped county.

It won't be cheap

Rays’ owner Stu Sternberg’s opening offer was a suggested $150 million contribution on a stadium that he said could cost $800 million.  Experts tell me a fixed-roof stadium would be more practical and could be built in the $500-to-$600 million range, but would likely still require hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions from either private developers or taxpayers.

That could put the public contributions for a new Rays stadium at more than double the public cost of Raymond James Stadium, even when inflation is considered.

“I would never put the taxpayer on the hook for that entire difference…that doesn’t work at all,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp.  “What’s going to have to be seen is…to the extent (the Rays and county) can privately leverage (financing).”

I previously identified 14 different potential ways a new stadium could lean on public funds to subsidize construction.  Hagan has indicated the county is eyeing bed taxes, an “entertainment district” tax on retail sales made in the immediate area, and local community redevelopment area (CRA) property taxes for potential stadium funding.

Several commissioners have publicly vented in recent years that they are not getting sufficient communication from the county administrator and county attorney regarding the ongoing negotiations with the team and presumed discussions regarding hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

“I have only been briefed one time,” Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Sandy Murman said.  “Bringing in big developers will make or break (a deal)…but it’s a non-starter for me if it involves taxes.”

Negotiations over public dollars are private

Secrecy has been an ongoing theme of the stadium talks, even after the secretive “land acquisition” stage of the process had been completed.  In late January, Hagan attended a private dinner at Bern’s Steakhouse with County Administrator Mike Merrill, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Rays owner Stu Sternberg, and prominent business leaders to discuss a Tampa stadium.

Details of the meeting did not appear on the calendars of any of the public officials.  Hagan’s text messages also reveal that other stadium-related meetings between Hagan and Raij, Tampa businessmen, and the Rays never appeared on the commissioner’s public calendar either.

A Hagan aide told me, “The commissioner doesn’t put everything on his calendar.”

The firm also coordinated a trip for Hagan and County CFO Bonnie Wise to attend a trip to Atlanta to see the Braves’ new stadium last year, where the two attended a game as guests of the Atlanta Braves.  Hagan disclosed the gift on his third quarter ethics filing.

Hagan’s recently-obtained texts also confirm my August report revealing the commissioner was exploring relocating – and rebuilding – the sheriff’s office headquarters in an effort to trade county land in Ybor City for a new stadium site.

A series of texts between Hagan and Raij in October also reference misdirecting the press in an effort to secure land in Ybor City.  Following a number of frustrating months negotiating with land owners, Hagan told reporters in October the county was moving on from the Ybor site and focused on the city’s West Shore district.  But Hagan and Raij joked there was no West Shore site at the time.

Following several days of speculation by sportstalk hosts and bloggers, the county was then able to secure the needed land in Ybor City.

Commissioner Hagan again failed to respond to a request for comment; he said he would no longer talk to me in October “due to your irresponsible and misleading reporting.”

He repeated that phrase 16 times.

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Friday, February 2, 2018

The Buckhorn and Hagan Almost-Secret Meeting with the Rays

The meeting was described as just “Baskette dinner” on Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s calendar. It listed as just “Bern’s” on the calendar of Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan.

And County Administrator Mike Merrill didn’t put it on his calendar at all.

But the high-powered dinner Jan. 23 at Tampa’s famed Bern’s Steakhouse was actually a rendezvous of powerful government leaders, local attorneys and Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg, who is seeking public money for a new stadium, presumably near Tampa’s Ybor City and Channelside districts.

Buckhorn declined comment on the story, but the mayor's spokesperson told me the meeting was listed on his calendar as “Baskette dinner” simply because it was coordinated by Patrick Baskette, an experienced lobbyist who works for Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick.

The firm’s partner, Ron Christaldi, a former chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, was also at the dinner. Christaldi has played the pivotal role in incorporating a nonprofit entity to assemble land and facilitate negotiations between the Rays and local governments out of the public eye.

Both Baskette and Christaldi are registered lobbyists; neither returned requests for comment.

Christaldi’s proximity to lucrative negotiations about land deals and tax dollars have drawn criticism around Tampa Bay; Baskette’s public involvement in the negotiations is a new development.

Several Hillsborough County commissioners told me they knew there had been a meeting with the Rays, but were surprised to learn of some of the details, including the location and individuals in attendance.

Two said they believed the meeting should have been better-detailed on officials’ public calendars.

Merrill said the dinner was never added to his calendar because the date was uncertain and he didn’t get a call about it until that day.

Under Florida law, officials’ and employees’ public calendars are considered public records, and available for inspection to any member of the public. But Hagan and Buckhorn – as well as some of the county’s top executives - have gone to great lengths in recent years to keep stadium-related discussions away from public records, even as hundreds of millions of tax dollars are discussed in conversation.

A Hagan aide said Thursday, “The commissioner doesn’t put everything on his calendar.”

Previously, Buckhorn told me the discussion items needed to be kept secret to prevent the price of speculative stadium property from soaring. Hagan told his fellow commissioners the same thing when they insisted on getting more frequent updates.

But securing land several months ago, at a fixed, agreed-upon price, did little to change the secretive nature of the talks. Hagan’s fellow commissioners reported just getting their first-ever briefings on the years-old discussions with the team this week.

Commissioners told me there remains little appetite to make up the nine-figure funding gap the Rays have suggested may be needed to get a stadium built.  And several said no new stadium will get built in Tampa without enormous private sector contributions.

Major national developers are expected to visit Tampa this month to explore the possibilities of creating a new entertainment district sandwiched between Ybor and downtown.

Sources tell me the funding discussions seem to be centering around two financing mechanisms: Community Redevelopment Areas (CRAs), which earmark a portion of county property taxes for projects in that same area; and a new entertainment district tax, which would be assessed on businesses around the ballpark.

However, those proposed funding mechanisms present challenges. Politically, both mechanisms involve tax dollars, which some commissioners have sworn off. And state Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran has challenged Tampa's authority to create special taxing districts.

There are also questions regarding the incredible amount of development that would be necessary to provide enough new tax revenue to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium construction.

The two funding sources are among the 14 different tax revenues I previously identified as possible ways to publicly finance a new Tampa stadium.

The Rays are expected to announce in upcoming weeks that the Tampa location is their “preferred” new home, but funding challenges could keep St. Petersburg’s preferred location for a new stadium, the Tropicana Field site, on the table.

Pinellas County’s available city and county funding for a new stadium could also one day bring a site near the bay bridges, such as Derby Lane, back into the mix should Hillsborough fail to find financing suitable to the team.

Merrill said Christaldi picked up the check following the meeting at Bern’s, but Merrill reimbursed him for his dinner.

Commissioner Hagan again failed to respond to a request for comment; he said he would no longer talk to me in October “due to your irresponsible and misleading reporting.”

He repeated that phrase 16 times.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

By One Metric, Bucs Most Popular Team in Tampa Bay; Pinellas Supporting Rays Better Than Hillsborough

Since the Rays won't release numbers on where their ticket holders are coming from (except when its convenient for them), I took a look at another metric: where fans were buying specialty license plates.

And while the Bucs and Bolts enjoy considerably more popularity in Hillsborough County than anywhere else in the state, there are more Tampa Bay Rays specialty tags in Pinellas than Hillsborough, despite the coastal county's smaller population (about 30% smaller).

Now this may not come as a surprise to many, but the whole "Pinellas hasn't supported that team" argument really is moot - if Pinellas isn't "properly" supporting the Rays, neither is Hillsborough.

Other fun Florida license plate facts (see the full stats on my story):

Most popular pro teams in Florida:
Most popular colleges in Florida:
Where Tampa Bay Rays plates are most popular:
Where Tampa Bay Buccaneers plates are most popular:
Where Tampa Bay Lightning plates are most popular:

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