Friday, November 24, 2017
News Roundup

Disgraced commissioner Joe Kotvas: 'It is time for the truth of this dark time in my life'

RECOMMENDED READING


TAMPA ­— Joe Kotvas made a mistake. He admits this now, or at least he admits he would have done things differently one very important morning in 1983, when that corrupt politician Jerry Bowmer walked into Kotvas' County Commission office and then walked out, leaving there on Kotvas' desk an envelope filled with enough cash to make a poor man sweat.

If he could go back, Kotvas says now, 34 years later, he would grab that envelope and storm out and catch Jerry Bowmer. And feed it to him, from the sound of it. Kotvas would avoid all the newspaper headlines and perp walks, avoid two trials, avoid prison time and a broken back. Maybe he'd rise to be the public servant he always dreamed about.

He can't go back, of course. A man can't control time. He can master only what he does with his own.

So, Joe Kotvas wrote, word after word, page after page, until he had himself a book, 46 chapters, 486 pages.

"So I leave it up to you to read the untarnished facts and make your own decision regarding my innocence or guilt," Kotvas writes in the preface. "It is time for the truth of this dark time in my life to be clearly and accurately known."

Found Guilty, But . . . tells the story of what is perhaps the most notorious local case of corruption. If you don't remember, you probably weren't here.

At the center of the mess was Jerry Bowmer, then 37, a lay preacher-turned-county commissioner who had run on a promise to "establish good honest government in Hillsborough County." The FBI caught Bowmer trying to negotiate a $75,000 bribe to win a favorable zoning change for developers trying to build the Galleria mall on 595 rural acres in northwest Hillsborough County. He agreed to cooperate with the feds in exchange for easy treatment.

He wore a wire when he visited his fellow commissioners carrying envelopes full of marked bills. Before the day was over, commissioners Kotvas, 39 at the time, and Fred Anderson, 54, were being escorted out of the county building in handcuffs.

The federal case then seemed to suck into its vortex a who's who of local businessmen, politicians and companies and eventually resulted in the convictions of four men and the acquittals of 14 other defendants after a 51/2-month corruption trial.

Many, then and now, have called U.S. Attorney Robert Merkle's pursuit a witch hunt (he earned the nickname "Mad Dog" Merkle), and perhaps the acquittals add validity to that. Those acquitted or investigated but not prosecuted, by and large, went on to lead successful lives. Some, like former State Attorney E.J. Salcines and former Gov. Bob Martinez, rose to high levels in state politics.

But the scandal changed the lives of those convicted.

Kotvas signed out of prison at 7:15 a.m. on Feb. 5, 1990, after serving five years of a 12-year federal sentence, with $200 in his pocket and a curfew. He returned to a changed Tampa. Once a rising young star in local populist politics, Kotvas couldn't get old friends to look him in the eye or shake his hand. The former police officer and Tampa City Council member who was a sniff shy of being elected mayor now had trouble finding a job. He worked at a liquor store and sold security cameras. He eventually became an X-ray technician and worked in relative anonymity for the next 25 years.

He has run three times for public office. He has lost three times. Maybe the voters remember.

"Like my friend Joe Chillura tells me: God forgives, but the public doesn't."

He wishes he had another chance.

"Everything I have today, even if I lost, even if I had to go back to prison, I'd risk it all," he said the other day at Acro Iris in West Tampa, as his cafe con leche grew cold. "I'd give it all up to be tried again on the merits of my case."

His book, he said, is an effort to set the record straight. To rewrite history.

"I just wanted to clear the air," he said. "People say, 'You shouldn't have done this, you shouldn't have done that.' Well, I didn't do anything!"

If no one else reads it, he said, the book is for his children and grandchildren. Two of them turned up, along with Chillura, at a recent author signing at the Charles J. Fendig Public Library, where empty chairs far outnumbered the seven human beings in the room. They heard Kotvas say that he got tired of reading newspaper stories rehashing his conviction, written by people "who don't know what they're talking about."

"Enough is enough," Kotvas said. "Yes, I'm guilty. But I'm not guilty of the charges. I'm guilty of not testifying on my own behalf."

He said: "If I did everything they say I did, where is all the money? Where is the paper trail?"

He said: "I can hold my head high because they didn't break me."

He said: "You're never defeated until you give up."

The judge is dead. The prosecutor is dead. His co-defendant is dead. Joe Kotvas is still alive, and he wants you to believe his tick-tock narrative about an aggressive prosecutor, a biased press and a man who refused to break. He wants you to believe his version of history.

"It was a bright, clear Monday morning on February 1, 1983 . . ." his book starts.

Informed that Feb. 1, 1983, was a Tuesday morning, Kotvas said, "No, no. That was a Monday. I remember." Then, "I didn't have a 1983 calendar when I was writing the book." Then, "Is this going to hurt us?"

He would phone his publisher, he said, to try to make another change.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.

 
Comments
Bucs-Falcons: Tampa Bay Times staff predictions for Sunday’s 1 p.m. game

Bucs-Falcons: Tampa Bay Times staff predictions for Sunday’s 1 p.m. game

The Bucs face the defending NFC champion in its new home Sunday in Atlanta.Here’s the Times’ Bucs coverage team’s predictions for Tampa Bay’s 1 p.m. game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:MATTY ICE-FOLLIESRick Stroud, @NFLStroud: T...
Updated: 9 minutes ago
Mounted police patrol Seminole Heights after killings

Mounted police patrol Seminole Heights after killings

TAMPA — A Florida police department is using horse patrols in a neighborhood that’s been plagued by homicides in recent weeks. Officials in Tampa have been searching for the person — or people — responsible for shooting and killing four in the Semino...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Tampa officer revives overdose victim in department’s first use of Narcan drug kit

Tampa officer revives overdose victim in department’s first use of Narcan drug kit

TAMPA — A Tampa Police officer administered the department’s first use of an overdose-reversal drug to revive a 27-year-old man on Friday.About 2 a.m., Tampa Police Officer Scott Seely responded to a call in east Tampa about a possible drug overdose,...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Lawsuit over Jolley Trolley dismissed

Lawsuit over Jolley Trolley dismissed

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit against Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority that Cincinnati-based First Transit filed in April, alleging it lost the county’s trolley contract because a "who’s who of Clearwater" lobbied the board to cho...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Tampa providing emergency medical service at MacDill, including new ambulance

Tampa providing emergency medical service at MacDill, including new ambulance

TAMPA — Sick and injured people at MacDill Air Force Base now rely on crews from Tampa Fire Rescue for help, and soon, they’ll have their own dedicated ambulance.Last month, the Tampa City Council approved the purchase of a $323,000 Braun Super Chief...
Updated: 1 hour ago

State DOT looking for direction on Alt. U.S. 19 corridor

Residents can give their input on the future of the Alt. U.S. 19 corridor by attending two workshops hosted by the Florida Department of Transportation and Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation and land-use arm.The agencies are developing a l...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Settlement approved for Treasure Island’s walkway cracks

Settlement approved for Treasure Island’s walkway cracks

TREASURE ISLAND — More than three years after cracks began appearing in its newly constructed mile-long Beach Trail walkway, the city has approved a settlement with the architect and contractors, and hired a new contractor to repair and rebuild the t...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Car-sized hole from broken water pipe closes road in Valrico

Car-sized hole from broken water pipe closes road in Valrico

VALRICO — A large hole that opened in Valrico’s Bloomingdale neighborhood on Thanksgiving day was caused by a broken water pipe, not a sinkhole, county officials said. The hole swallowed a Mini Cooper-sized chunk of Natures Way Boulevard, at the Elm ...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Study to determine number of red snapper in the Gulf

OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. — A team of 21 scientists will conduct a study to estimate the number of red snapper in the U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The panel of researchers from universities and state and federal agencies was convened by the Mississi...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Newly engaged couple among three killed in wrong-way crash on I-75

Newly engaged couple among three killed in wrong-way crash on I-75

TAMPA — Last month, LaShay Waiters got down on one knee and proposed to Yvette Alexandre in front of their family and friends. About two weeks ago, the young couple found out Alexandre was pregnant."They had a great future together," said Waiters’ mo...
Updated: 2 hours ago