Thursday, February 25, 2016

Florida Bar dismisses complaints against former Hillsborough Aviation Authority attorney

TAMPA — The Florida Bar Association has dismissed ethics and Sunshine Law violation complaints against former Hillsborough Aviation Authority attorney Gigi Rechel who says the complaints were made by “a disgruntled ex-board member.”

The Florida Bar, in a letter to Rechel, said there was a lack of evidence to support a complaint that she engaged in a conflict of interest by representing both the Aviation Authority board and Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, a system still in place today.

The letter also said that Rechel did not violate the Sunshine Law when she was unable to produce text messages to fulfill a public records request in 2014. It said her failure to maintain an archive of those messages, as required by state law, was “an isolated incident.”

Rechel, on Thursday, said she feels vindicated and is happy to put the matter behind her.

She said she was frustrated it took so long for the Florida Bar to review the complaints but is now moving on with her life, focusing on her 11-year-old daughter and her 90-year-old mother.

In October 2014, Rechel’s personal cell phone carrier, Sprint, was unable to provide Rechel with copies of her texts. She asked for copies to fulfill a public records request from The Tampa Tribune. The Tribune, at the time, was considering a story on the financing for the airport’s $1 billion master plan. That failure to produce the text messages is apparently what spurred the complaint that she had violated the Sunshine Law.

The Tribune did get copies of the text messages through a public records request made to former aviation authority board member Martin Garcia, with whom Rechel had been texting about official business.

Garcia, whom Rechel named Thursday as the person who filed both complaints against her, did not return calls to his office and cell phone or reply to a text message for comment.

While the unfounded ethics complaint brought against Rechel inferred that she had a conflict of interest by representing both the board and the CEO at the airport, the board doesn’t see it that way. It agreed in February 2015 to keep the one counsel system, but tweaked the rules to say the attorney would be hired and if necessary, fired by the board, not the CEO.

Airport spokeswoman Janet Zink said that since the incident with the cell phone text messages in late 2014, the aviation authority has put in place a system to document and archive all business conducted on employee and board member cell phones as required by state law. She also said the airport was happy to hear Rechel was cleared of any wrongdoing.

“Gigi worked here a long time and was instrumental in the airport’s success,” Zink said in an email. “We’re pleased with this decision.”

Rechel served as the aviation authority attorney for 15 years before resigning shortly after the complaints were made to the Florida Bar. She submitted a resignation to Lopano saying she wanted to retire and at the time, declined to comment publicly on the allegations.

Meeting with reporters Thursday, Rechel said she was shocked when Garcia filed the complaints against her, since he had always praised her work. “I was stunned. I don’t want to guess his motivations. I was very surprised, to say the least.”

She said Garcia had often insisted she text him about official airport business, rather than talk to him on the phone.

Garcia, on the board for less than a year before he abruptly resigned mid-term in April 2014 with no public explanation, had complained to Rechel that the aviation authority had not properly studied the cost of its $1 billion master plan expansion before getting financing for the project, now under construction for more than a year. He had also complained at an aviation finance committee meeting that the aviation authority was not using financial matrix to evaluate Lopano’s performance.

Many of the 51 printed pages of text messages between Garcia and Rechel referred to those complaints.

- Original article can be found here: http://www.tbo.com

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