Airport attorney Gigi Rechel is being investigated to determine if she violated the Florida Sunshine Law by failing to archive dozens of text messages between herself and a former board member.
The Florida Bar Association is investigating a complaint that Rechel broke the law by not ensuring that the messages were saved. When text messages are used to discuss official government business in Florida, they become public record and must be archived.
After 15 years as counsel for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority and Tampa International Airport, Rechel submitted her resignation Thursday to Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano. In a brief resignation letter, she said she was retiring to pursue other challenges. Airport spokeswoman Janet Zink said Monday she has no knowledge that Rechel’s resignation is connected with the text message complaint. Rechel has agreed to stay on with the authority as a consultant until January.
A total of 51 printed pages of text messages between Rechel and former board member Martin Garcia were reportedly automatically deleted from Rechel’s cell phone. When the Tribune requested copies of her cell phone text messages in June, she told airport officials she no longer had the cell phone messages because, unbeknownst to her, her carrier, Sprint, had automatically deleted them from her phone.
The Tribune obtained the text messages through a public records request made to Garcia, who resigned abruptly April 29 without publicly giving a reason. He and Rechel had texted back and forth often on concerns Garcia had about a lack of transparency in conducting airport business, about the lack of an independent feasibility study for the airport’s $1 billion master plan and about a lack of financial accountability tied to Lopano’s annual performance review.
Garcia declined to comment for this report and Rechel did not return phone calls for comment.
Since this issue first surfaced back in June, the airport has implemented a plan to archive all cell phone records from 300 smart phones and 40 iPads, no matter who the cell phone carrier is or whether they are personal phones or those issued to an employee for their job, Zink said.
“In the meantime, for at least a year, we had been looking at a way to automate our text messages and we put that in place in July,” Zink said. “It took a long time, because we were trying to find something that worked across platforms.”
She said when the issue came up in June, Rechel “did go to great lengths to try to recover those text messages, including going to the service provider. Sprint doesn’t save the content of text messages, so we were not able to get them.”
Florida Bar Association Director of Public Information Francine Walker said the investigation is at the staff level at this point and it could take 60-90 days or even longer to determine whether there is enough reason to explore the complaint further. The next level would be to take the complaint to a grievance committee, similar to a grand jury, where witnesses could be summoned and further evidence collected.
“It would be impossible to predict what sanction a lawyer might receive for violating the public records statute,” Walker said. The sanction could be anything from suspension, to admonishment, probation or disbarment, according to Bar Association rules.
The identity of people who complain to the Bar Association is not released until after the complaint has been investigated, Walker said.