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Are Hernando County Commissioners Routinely Breaking the “Sunshine Law?”

Are Hernando County Commissioners Routinely Breaking the “Sunshine Law?”

In business, you hear it said often that success isn’t dependent on how smart you are or that you have a better product or service. Success is often about the relationships you develop.

Two years ago, when Tony Dye looked at moving his business, Corporate Jet Solutions, to Hernando County, he and his father, Bradley Dye, thought they were building a relationship with the right people. The right people included, at that time, Hernando County Commissioner Wayne Dukes, Commissioner Diane Rowden, County Administrator Len Sossamon, and a man all three vouched for, Tom Barnette. And, the wild card in the mix was Commissioner Nick Nicholson.

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When it appeared to the Dye’s that the now defunct Aviation Authority might block their application to rent three buildings at the airport, these individuals rallied around them to help. Or, so they thought. Looking back, they now realize the whole affair was manufactured by these same individuals with the ultimate goal of destroying Gary Schraut and the Aviation Authority, say Tony and Bradley Dye.

The Dye’s also say that it was communicated to them by ‘Mr. Put On Our Big Boy Pants’ Len Sossamon, ‘Mr. Time To Man Up’ Wayne Dukes, and ‘Mrs. Removed From Office’ Diane Rowden, that they should go around the Aviation Authority and go directly to the County Commission at their next meeting on May 14th, 2013. According to the Dye’s, the County Administrator and two commissioners then coordinated behind the scenes to make sure the Dye’s were recognized at that meeting where it was then arranged for them to make a presentation and proposal directly to the commission at the next meeting and therefore bypass the Aviation Authority.

At one point in these early conversations, Tony and Bradley Dye tell us that Sossamon stated, “Don’t worry about the Aviation Authority, I’m going to abolish it anyway.” In other conversations, Diane Rowden echoed the same sentiment.

As the Dye’s were being evicted from these buildings in December 2014, over a dispute with Commissioner Wayne Dukes and County Administrator Len Sossamon, the Hernando County Aviation Authority was suddenly disbanded by the Hernando County Commission.

Mission accomplished.

Until now, the Dye’s had been reluctant to talk due to pending litigation. But, this is a story they felt the public should know.

And, in telling it the Dye’s might quite possibly be opening the door to more criminal investigations.

In the beginning, the Dye’s describe their relationship and communication with Rowden, Dukes, and Sossamon as centering around Diane Rowden and Len Sossamon. In a typical scenario, the Dye’s would be talking to Rowden, who would then call Sossamon, talk for a time, then Sossamon might hang up and call another commissioner (like Dukes), after which, Sossamon would call them back.

In conversations with the Dye’s, it became more and more obvious that these commissioners might be working through the County Administrator, Len Sossamon, and possibly local businessman Tom Barnette, to communicate with each other.

With that in mind, we asked Bradley Dye if he thought any “Sunshine Law” violations had occurred? He responded, “I’m not an expert on Sunshine laws. And, prior to discussions with Hernando County Officials didn’t know they even existed. As I’m not versed in the law, I’d have to leave it up to others to make that determination. But, my opinion is that they did.”

Remember, Diane Rowden was removed from office as a School Board Member for Sunshine Law violations in 1992.

Back in 2013, Rowden, Dukes, and Sossamon kept telling the Dye’s, “We just have to learn to count to three.”  Meaning, they only needed three votes from County Commissioners to get what they wanted.

In these early conversations, Rowden, Dukes, and Sossamon repeatedly encouraged the Dye’s to talk to Tom Barnette whom they described as a “political lobbyist” to help them get the three votes they needed on the County Commission. And, who was the third vote they could count on Barnette to deliver? It was Nick Nicholson whom these same individuals ridiculed, laughed about, and made fun of during these conversations say the Dye’s.

This is the same Nick Nicholson who has been investigated by the FDLE and is currently under investigation by the State Attorney’s Office for his involvement with the Bayou Bay Bridge Project.

Curiously, in examining Barnette’s qualifications as a lobbyist, we have been unable to find any lobbying data base in Florida that lists a Tom or Thomas Barnette as a Lobbyist. (FloridaLobbyist.gov, Florida Association of Professional Lobbyist, SW Florida Water Management District Lobbyists)

What we do know for sure is that Tom Barnette was Commissioner Wayne Dukes’ campaign manager during the 2014 election cycle.

During that same time period, Barnette was awarded a $50,000 contract with the county just before the 2014 elections to create a website called the “Mermaid Trail.” As of Thursday, November 5th, no such website exists. Tammy Heon, Tourism Manager for Hernando County, told us earlier this year that the website that was delivered was unusable.

The Dye’s maintain that during these early conversations in 2013, Len Sossamon and Diane Rowden assured them that Tom Barnette could “guarantee them a third vote.”

In a conference call early in the relationship, with Tony and Bradley Dye on one phone, Diane Rowden and her husband Jay Rowden on another, and Tom Barnette calling in from his lake house, the Dye’s were told that, for a $10,000 lobbying fee, Barnette could guarantee them a third vote.

Later that same evening, the Dye’s spoke with Len Sossamon about their conversation with Tom Barnette and the lobbying fee.

The Dye’s thought about it, but decided not to pay Barnette. In Bradley Dye’s words, “It just didn’t feel right.”

In order to prove the Dye’s allegations, we have repeatedly asked for County Administrator Len Sossamon’s cell phone records to confirm these communications, dates, and times. However, the public records requests are continually denied by the county.

A more complete examination of the Dye’s records, along with all the records currently being denied us by the county, could validate or invalidate these theories of possible “Sunshine Law” violations.

A little over a year after these initial conversations, these same government officials turned their backs on the Dye’s by refusing to follow through on promises they had made to the Dye’s concerning repairs to the buildings and grounds they had leased. Then without a second thought, the county served the Dye’s with an eviction notice two days after the 2014 elections (November 7, 2014).

Since the dissolution of the Hernando County Aviation Authority, there has been a huge power shift in how business is done in the county. The biggest asset in the county, the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport, is now directly under the control of County Administrator Len Sossamon and the county commission.

Shortly after evicting the Dye’s from the airport property, the county then signed a new lease with a startup company, Transformation Aviation Services (TAS). Transformation Aviation Services made headlines recently when it was discovered that the county was giving $377,000 in free rent to a company whose owner, David Doyle Tidwell, had a felony conviction.

Why would Sossamon and his cohorts evict a $10,000 a month paying client (CJS), and then turn around and give the same buildings to a start-up company (TAS) rent free to the tune of $377,000 over three years?

Based on this account given by the Dye’s about the inner workings between commissioners and County Administrator Len Sossamon, and based on the most recent fiasco over the recruitment of Transformation Aviation Services, we asked several former members of the disbanded Airport Authority if they thought Hernando County’s biggest asset was now being mismanaged by Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon?

All of these former Aviation Authority members, Morris Porton, Gary Shraut, and Dennis Wilfong declined to comment on Sossamon’s performance. However, they all agreed that before being disbanded, the Hernando County Aviation Authority, while not perfect, provided a much needed vetting process for businesses who wanted to move to the airport facilities. Plus, the work the Aviation Authority did was always conducted in the ‘Sunshine’ which made all the business dealings transparent to the public.

Most feel, Hernando County could use a little more “Sunshine.”

We’d like to thank the Dye’s for coming forward with their story.

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Samuel M. McCall attended Auburn University and has an MBA in Accounting. He currently lives near Tampa, Florida with his wife. They are fans of the Tampa Bay Rays and the Tampa Bay Lightning. And, during football season you'll hear Sam yelling "War Eagle" around the house on Saturdays which sometimes startles the two Rotti's, Ruger and Lyric. Sam's favorite read, "To Kill A Mockingbird." Favorite movie, "Unforgiven." You can follow Sam on Twitter @Dixiehighways

2 Comments

  1. Has David Tidwell or TAS ever even taken possession of the air port property? For that matter, has Tree-Umph, Diane’s only accomplishment in 3 years, ever improved a single acre of the score of acreas, Sossamon and Rowden gave away? Again I tell you that Sossamon is the economic problem with the economy, not the savior there of.

  2. Could these revelations just be the tip of a huge iceberg?

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