Kevin White corruption trial opens Monday

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White said he was flat broke.

It was August 2009. A jury had just ruled that White sexually harassed a former aide and awarded the woman $75,000. White claimed ruinous legal fees.

Soon after, White hatched a plan that would fatten his wallet, federal prosecutors say.

They say he put his influence as a public official up for sale.

White’s trial on 10 federal felony charges opens Monday with jury selection in what is the first corruption case of an elected Hillsborough official in more than a decade. White’s political career is probably over.

Now, he fights to avoid a lengthy prison term.

White is accused of accepting bribes to influence the Public Transportation Commission, the Hillsborough agency he chaired that regulates vehicles for hire, including wreckers. He and his late father, Gerald White Sr., accepted $8,000 in bribes and a 2003 Lincoln Navigator, prosecutors say.

White has been charged with bribery, wire and mail fraud, conspiracy and lying to the FBI. He has pleaded not guilty.

The trial promises both political and legal theater.

The cast of characters includes an undercover FBI agent, a police informant, an alleged co-conspirator who might be mentally ill and an unindicted co-conspirator who died awaiting a heart transplant.

But the star of the case may be the hours of secret recordings prosecutors believe will take jurors inside the conspiracy.

“I would say expect the unexpected,” said Latour “LT” Lafferty, an attorney not involved in the case who specializes in white-collar cases.

Federal sentencing guidelines are notoriously complex. But attorneys not involved in the case say prison is a certainty if White is convicted.

“Nobody’s coming through this trial and going on probation,” said former federal prosecutor Bill Jung.

If convicted, Jung said, White will probably face two to five years in prison.

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The bribery case begins with a man who will not be in court when the trial opens.

George Hondrellis, owner of Tampa City Towing, launched the scheme, prosecutors say, in September 2009 when he told an acquaintance the PTC was “giving away towing certificates for money.”

They would discuss being partners in a towing business, paying White for his help getting a PTC certificate and being placed on a lucrative rotational towing list used by law enforcement.

But the acquaintance was a police informant.

Hondrellis said he had given the elder White a $2,000 “loan,” prosecutors say. Other payments followed. A second businessman entered the picture, claiming that he, too, was forming a towing company and needed Kevin White’s help.

White told the man he needed $10,000 for his reelection campaign for the county commission. (White resoundingly lost his seat in a 2010 election.) The man paid him $5,000.

This “businessman” was an undercover government agent.

Hondrellis was indicted with White in June. But Hondrellis’ attorneys expressed concern about his mental competency, saying he had expressed “delusional” thoughts.

So Hondrellis will be tried separately after a mental health evaluation.

Prosecutors say White’s father could have been indicted with his son. But he died not long before his son’s arrest as he awaited a heart transplant.

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White’s attorney, Grady Irvin Jr., and U.S. Attorney Robert O’Neill, who is personally trying the case, have revealed little about their trial strategies. Both declined comment.

Public corruption cases usually hinge on one question, said Lafferty, who is a former federal prosecutor: Can prosecutors prove a clear link between a supposed bribe and what was provided in return?

And while the secret undercover recordings are important in demonstrating that quid pro quo, it will probably be the undercover government agent, and the informant, who tie it all together, Lafferty said.

“A key point is that most public officials are afforded some leeway” by juries, Lafferty said. “They enjoy some political capital with the public that leads to some acquittals to public corruption cases and makes them hard to try.”

But White may have eroded that benefit given a string of highly publicized controversies in his tumultuous career.

“There’s been so much negative publicity with White, it will be a Herculean task to rehabilitate his image,” said John Trevena, a Pinellas lawyer who isn’t shy about using the media to mold a client’s public imagine.

One of the few glimpses of White’s potential defense came in a pretrial motion filed by his attorney suggesting White’s team may try to discredit Hondrellis, the middleman who brought all the players together.

White’s defense, it said, “must now center … on the fact that the prosecution of this case is, in part, based upon … someone who may very well have a history of delusional thoughts, psychosis” and other mental health issues.

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Undercover recordings can be the most powerful weapon in a prosecutor’s arsenal. But as the failed prosecution of Steve and Marlene Aisenberg shows, that isn’t always true.

The Aisenbergs faced charges of conspiracy and making false statements two years after the 1997 disappearance of their infant daughter from their Valrico home. Authorities bugged their home.

Prosecutors said the couple made incriminating statements. But the case collapsed after a judge ruled the tapes were “largely inaudible.”

Barry Cohen, who was the Aisenbergs’ attorney and whose office represents Hondrellis, said he doesn’t view undercover recordings with dread.

“So many people in the system lie,” Cohen said. “But tapes are a good way to get to the evidence — as long as you can hear them and as long as they aren’t taken out of context.”

Jung, the former federal prosecutor, said jurors find tapes compelling. “They’re very hard to defend,” he said. “They’re hard to impeach. You can’t cross-examine a machine.”

A classic defense posture in a bribery case, he said, is to turn the tables, telling jurors it was a shake-down, not a bribe.

The trial is expected to last one to two weeks. Few expect a last-minute plea. Irvin has told the court White won’t consider one.