State launches investigation into possible misuse of $800,000 in taxpayer funds

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is under investigation.

KEN WELCH, chairman of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority

The Florida Department of Transportation launched a formal inquiry on Thursday into the Pinellas County-area transit authority’s use of $800,000 in operating funds — supplied through property taxes — to advertise a $1.7-billion light rail plan that hinges on area taxpayers voting themselves the highest sales tax rate in the state. has published several reports challenging PSTA ridership claims, cost estimates and proposed economic benefits.

The transit authority has denied any wrongdoing.

External affairs officer Bob Lasher told last week in an email, “PSTA has always and continues to conduct its Greenlight Pinellas Educational outreach with full transparency and in full compliance with the law.”

But critics, as well as some local news media and a powerful state senator, are questioning whether the transit authority’s public education campaign is really just taxpayer-funded political advocacy.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, called for the investigation and told, “They’ve had no intention to talk about any of the negative facts of Greenlight Pinellas.”

“When my constituents are receiving (promotion) materials they should know the costs as well, including a billion dollar tax increase over 10 years on the ballot,” Brandes said.

Barbara Haselden, founder of No Tax for Tracks, a grassroots group opposed to the light rail plan, was denied by the transit authority the opportunity to pay for bus advertisements that would have offered an alternate look to the PSTA’s rosy projections. She was told the ads were political, Haselden said.

Push came to shove Thursday — the same day FDOT announced its investigation — at a Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon when the PSTA’s chairman, County Commissioner Ken Welch, rebutted a presentation made by Haselden.

“In the ranking of disinformation, there are lies, there are darned lies, and there are statistics, and I would add to that statistics in the hand of No Tax for Tracks,” Welch said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Welch also accused Haselden’s group at the luncheon of opposing fluoride, affordable housing and Meals on Wheels.

“No Tax for Tracks has never had anything to do with any of that,” Haselden told in a phone interview. “I honestly don’t know what he was talking about.”

Haselden’s group reportedly has raised $25,000 in their own educational effort. She respond to Welch’s criticism of her presentation by saying, “My presentation was using their facts. It uses their charts and graphs. I was amazed at the hostility.”

Contact William Patrick at [email protected]

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