Hillsborough PTC defends money spent on lobbyists

The Florida Legislature created a commission and gave it the power to collect funds, which it now uses to hire lobbyists to lobby the same legislature that created it. 

State Representative James Grant says that's a problem.

"The problem, in this particular case in my belief, is the agency does not have the authority to expend money to lobby," the Hillsborough County Republican observed.

He's talking about the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission, or PTC. The legislature created it to regulate taxis, limos and other ride services.  And now it's facing some controversy because critics, like the Institute of justice, claim it's regulating too much.

So as the legislature considered changing or dissolving the commission, the commission hired a firm managed by the brother of incoming house speaker Richard Corcoran to lobby the legislature on its behalf.

We discovered that may be illegal based on what we found in three attorney general opinions, including one signed by current Attorney General Pam Bondi.  According to those opinions, entities created by the state cannot spend funds on state lobbyists without specific authorization.

Defense attorney and Florida legal analyst Jeff Brown agrees with Representative Grant that the Hillsborough PTC has no authority to hire state lobbyists.

"I looked at this and said this is pretty cut and dried," he offered. "I spent considerable hours looking to see if I am missing something here but it turns out we're not."

This year, records show the PTC lobbyists have earned between $20,000 and $29,000 a quarter.  This summer, the PTC extended its contract with Corcoran and Johnson to $120,000 a year. 

"It's a clear violation of the law," Brown continued.  "They were not given the authority to hire lobbyists and they have. They've been spending our money illegally."

We asked for a third opinion from Walt Dartland, former deputy attorney general under Bob Butterworth.

"It does not authorize this expenditure," he stated.  "Therefore, it's a clear violation of the statute and of the opinions that have been issued before."

Dartland led the division that wrote one of those prior opinions, which conclude state-created entities cannot hire state lobbyists without specific authorization in law.  And he said it should apply to the Hillsborough PTC.

"Well, it's illegal," he continued.  "They cannot do it. It has to be resolved and I would do it as soon as possible."

But PTC executive director Kyle Cockream, says the commission can hire lobbyists, though it's not spelled out.

"There is a provision in our special act that allows for this kind of relationship take place," he insisted.

"Does it specifically note lobbying?" we asked.

"No," he replied.

Cockream says those AG opinions forbidding public funds for lobbying don't apply because the PTC has no public funds.  He says, instead, it collects government funds through assessments and fees and does not consider that to be public.

"We don't tax public sector; we tax private sector as it were.  And I say word 'tax' -- the fees come from private sector," he continued.

"When a government authority collects citations and fees and license fees, that's not public money?" Craig asked.

"No, that's not public money," Cockream stated.

"Is it private money?" Craig asked.

"Um," answered Cockream.

Cockream said that's a question best  to the legal team, and an issue they might take up in their next board meeting.

"If something needs to be changed or a question gets asked that sheds light on something, then doggone it, let's change it and do the right thing," he added.

Attorney General Pam Bondi's office told us that she cannot issue an opinion on the PTC without a government request.  Cockeream said the PTC's attorney could brief the board and then the board could decide if it wants an opinion.

It is meeting with lawmakers on December 8, then meeting as a board on December 9.