The Florida Bar is investigating whether former Hillsborough County Aviation Authority attorney Gigi Rechel, who abruptly resigned Thursday, violated the state’s Sunshine Law governing open public records.
The Bar said Friday that it’s conducting an inquiry into Rechel in her capacity as the authority’s general counsel. Rechel, 53, spent 15 years giving legal advice to the board that oversees Tampa International Airport before announcing her immediate retirement.
“There are possible public records violations,” Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker said. “I can confirm that we do have such a complaint pending at a staff-level investigation.”
That’s the first stage of a Bar inquiry to see if the allegations merit further investigation. The Bar would not reveal who filed the complaint, when it was filed or its specific allegations.
But TIA officials said Rechel was involved in a potential public records violation this year when she used her private phone to send texts discussing authority business to board member Martin Garcia.
Those matters are public record. But TIA spokeswoman Janet Zink said Rechel told airport officials she didn’t realize her phone was not recording those texts so they could be preserved under public records law.
“She went to great lengths to try and recover the text messages,” Zink said.
Rechel could not recover those texts, according to airport officials, who could not say what those messages were about.
The authority now has a system that can archive texts for the public record. All airport employees were briefed on the new system, Zink said, and Rechel’s phone was linked to it.
“Everyone has been informed at the authority that it’s a public record if you’re using a private phone for work,” Zink said.
Zink said the authority started working on the system in 2013, but it didn’t come online until July. By May, however, Garcia had already quit TIA’s governing board.
Garcia did not disclose why he left less than a year after the governor had appointed him to the board. But he had clashed with airport officials over accounting practices and the funding of TIA’s $934 million expansion plan. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
It was not known if Rechel’s texting issue with Garcia is what led to the Bar complaint against her. But anyone is free to file a compliant against a lawyer in Florida, and the Bar must make a preliminary inquiry into all such complaints.
According to the Bar, no disciplinary action has been taken against Rechel in the past 10 years nor has the Bar conducted any investigations into her conduct in the past year.
Attorneys rarely face sanctioning in Florida. The state had 98,922 attorneys in fiscal year 2014, but less than 0.4 percent — or 391 lawyers — actually faced any kind of discipline, according to the Bar,
But Walker said that Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine laws are just like any other laws that an attorney must follow.
“It’s expected that lawyers comply with local, state and federal law,” Walker said. “They are officers of the court.”
Rechel made $210,000 a year as the airport’s top lawyer. She could not be reached for comment Friday. No successor has been named.
When she announced her retirement, Rechel said she’ll stay on until Jan. 15 to work on a few projects.
“The time is now right for me to enjoy a new challenge,” she wrote. “I wish everyone well at the Authority.”