TARPON SPRINGS — After a nine-month investigation, an outside law firm found no wrongdoing in how city staff and representatives of a developer engaged over an application for a 404-unit apartment complex near the Anclote River.
The result was a stunning contrast to the narrative of back-door dealing that city commissioners painted around the origins of the project, which prompted them to hire the Tampa-based Carlton Fields law firm to investigate.
Adam Schwartz, head of the firm’s white-collar government investigations, found no evidence that agents of Morgan Group, a Texas-based developer, exerted inappropriate pressure on city staff to advance the project. The investigation could not substantiate allegations of “self dealing.” It identified no Florida Bar violations by former City Attorney Tom Trask or Ed Armstrong, an attorney representing the developer.
The firm interviewed 25 witnesses and reviewed 27,000 documents. The probe cost the city $160,000.
At a meeting on Wednesday, Mayor Costa Vatikiotis said the findings include no reason to invalidate the former commission’s 2021 approval of the apartments, which have not yet broken ground.
“Given that, we need to move forward and kind of get back to work, to what we’re supposed to be doing,” Vatikiotis said.
But commissioners made little mention of the accusations and innuendo they lodged against city staff, the developer and others since Vatikiotis began scrutinizing the project’s history when a new majority of commissioners opposed to the project were elected. In an Oct. 5, 2022, memo, the mayor stated “there is a strong possibility” of “criminal, civil or administrative wrongdoing.”
“It’s put significant stress on me and my family that was unwarranted when we did the right thing,” former Commissioner Jacob Karr, who voted in 2021 to approve the project, said in an interview. “You’ve got this current board making stuff up and spreading partial truth and lies and getting the city all hyped up about fraud that isn’t there.”
During a meeting in October 2022, commissioners pored over some of the hundreds of emails exchanged between city staff and Morgan Group in the three years before the developer submitted its proposal. At the time, Commissioner Panagiotis Koulias said it showed evidence of “back door deals to try to get projects done.”
But the Carlton Fields report said city staff and the developer had “pre-application meetings” and information requests, which are standard practice in local government to increase the efficiency and quality of proposals before a public submission. The firm found no evidence those involved withheld information and noted the numerous hearings held on the application before various boards.
Armstrong, the attorney representing Morgan Group, helped write language for ordinances that gave developers more time to assemble projects and changed a procedure. When the planning and zoning board voted on the ordinances in 2019, staff did not disclose they had been written to accommodate Morgan Group’s project.
“Is this legal?” Commissioner Mike Eisner said, during the 2022 meeting. He described it as “years of laying the foundation to ruin our city to make money for a few” and said Trask, the then-city attorney, “was complicit with them.”
But Carlton Fields investigators stated it is common practice for outside attorneys to propose changes to the land use codes, and that city planning staff first proposed the changes to accommodate growth. They said the planning staff was competent in handling revisions, and the city attorney was not required to be involved in all exchanges.
“This commission publicly attacked our integrity with exactly zero evidence, which is both malicious and dangerous,” Armstrong said in an interview.
Trask resigned in 2022 amid the accusations. In a statement, he said the report confirms that the “slanderous allegations of impropriety made against me and the Trask Daigneault law firm by the Mayor and certain City Commissioners were untrue, politically motivated, and born from an ends-justify-the-means mentality and desire by some to kill the Anclote Harbor apartments project.”
Former Commissioner Townsend Tarapani recused himself from all votes on the project because his stepmother worked as the planner for Morgan Group. His father helped arrange meetings between the developer and the city. He said commissioners’ “malicious and slanderous accusations” that he did not disclose personal gain from the project have had lasting consequences.
In small-town Tarpon Springs, the rumor that he “couldn’t be trusted” spread, and as an owner of a real estate brokerage, he said he knows of deals he lost because of it.
On Thursday, Vatikiotis said the report may not be conclusive because not all witnesses agreed to be questioned by Carlton Fields. Tarapani said he chose not to participate in a “$160,000 witchhunt.”
In its report, Carlton Fields stated that no witnesses alleging conflicts of interest or self-dealing by people who declined interviews provided any evidence to support it.