National News

No charges filed against chief of defunct Hillsborough transportation agency over missing records

Posted May 6, 2018 6:06 p.m. EDT

TAMPA -- The former head of the county's now defunct Public Transportation Commission will not face charges over missing public records.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement recently wrapped up a year-long investigation into whether former PTC chief Kyle Cockream deleted text messages from seven agency cell phones. The investigation was launched after a forensic investigator working on behalf of Hillsborough County found that the phones had been reset, a process that wipes them clean of data.

But FDLE investigators said there was no proof Cockream destroyed text messages, which are considered public records. Deliberately deleting them is a misdemeanor criminal offense.

"At the completion of our investigation and after review by the FDLE's Office of General Counsel, no evidence was developed to indicate a criminal violation on the part of Cockream," the investigation report says.

The text messages were requested by the office of Andrea Flynn Mogensen, a Sarasota law firm that regularly challenges agencies on Florida's public records laws. It sued the PTC after the agency failed to provide the texts.

"It's disappointing that FDLE never bothered to contact us before it concluded its inquiry," said Michael Barfield, a paralegal with the law firm. "It's also unclear why FDLE failed to determine how Mr. Cockream's phone was reset to factory settings and where the public records on his phone disappeared to."

FDLE investigators interviewed several PTC staff members, but Cockream, on advice from his attorney, refused to speak with investigators, the report says. He also repeatedly pled the Fifth Amendment during a deposition ordered by the judge in the public records lawsuit. Fifth Amendment privilege allows a witness to decline to answer questions if the answers might prove incriminating.

A PTC invoice shows it paid $2,994 to Valrico-based Data Specialist Group in October 2016 for "Mobile Device Data Recovery." It lists Cockream as the customer and indicates the company was paid Oct. 12 with a PTC credit card authorized by Cockream. That payment also covered the cost of the work done on Cockream's personal phone.

The work was done before the phones were given to Adam Sharp of E-Hounds, a forensic investigator hired by Hillsborough County to extract public records. Sharp found that Cockream's agency phone had records going back to September 2016, although he had been using it for almost a year prior to that. Billing records from the PTC's cellphone provider showed that Cockream often used his agency phone to send and receive text messages.

Data Specialist founder Dwayne Denny told FDLE investigators that Cockream asked him to preserve the data on the phones, which was put on a flash drive and given to Cockream. Denny was never asked to wipe the phone data, he said.

The missing data may have shed more light on a controversial period for the PTC during which agency emails showed it used employees of local taxicab and limousine rental firms in sting operations targeting drivers from their competitors Uber and Lyft.

Cockream, a former Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigator, stepped down from his $150,000 job running the PTC at the end of December 2016. He could not be reached for comment. The PTC, established by a special state law in 1976, regulated taxicabs, tow trucks and ambulances and was dissolved in 2017.

Former PTC Chairman Victor Crist, a Hillsborough county commissioner, said he had no comment on the FDLE investigation.

"I'm glad to see closure on this," Crist said, "and it's time to move on."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.