High-profile local transit advocacy group dissolves after filing no federal tax returns for 3 years

In an official filing with the State of Florida, the Hillsborough-based transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay, Inc. (CTB) voluntarily dissolved itself on April 26th. This came 11 days after a Guardian reporter wrote Hillsborough county commissioners with evidence that CTB never filed any federally required tax returns.

brian_willisAnnounced Hillsborough County Commission candidate Brian Willis (pictured right) was CTB’s president at the deadlines for 3 out of the 4 tax returns that had to be filed, but never were filed. Willis is a real estate attorney at the Tampa law firm Shumaker, Loop and Kendrick. Willis has offered no comment as to why the returns required by federal law were not filed.

It was CTB who in January 2014 came up with the name “Go Hillsborough”, which is the name that Hillsborough County chose for its now troubled transportation plan. On April 27th, commissioners declined by 4-3 vote place it on the ballot this November, but may still place it on the ballot at a public hearing on June 9th. Go Hillsborough, if placed on the ballot and approved by voters in November, would mean a hike in the sales tax.

The Tampa Bay Guardian first asked to see CTB’s tax returns on January 19th, 2016.  CTB’s Executive Director Kevin Thurman wrote back the same day and said “I have received your request and will provide you with all documents required by law within one week”. Thurman never did.

Three weeks later, after prodding, Thurman (pictured below middle) said that CTB had filed all required tax returns, and claimed to have e-mailed copies of them to the Guardian two weeks earlier. Tax exempt organizations must make their tax returns available for inspection and copying by the public as a condition of their tax exempt status.

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Annoyed that the reporter was questioning whether returns had even been filed, Thurman insisted on “re-sending” the returns via certified mail rather than e-mail, with a return receipt. His letter never came.

CTB was formed with much fanfare in late 2012 by Thurman, current Hillsborough County Commission candidate Brian Willis, Brian Seel (son of Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel) and Brandie Miklus, an urban planner for Jacobs Engineering.

Jacobs Engineering produced the multimillion dollar Alternative Analysis for Pinellas County, from which the basis for the2014 Greenlight Pinellas tax hike referendum, which was trounced by voters with 62% voting “NO”. Jacobs is a potential bidder on multi-million dollar Go Hillsborough contracts.

Miklus  worked the welcome table at early Go Hillsborough “community engagement” meetings held by the county (see picture right). This role allowed Miklus to gather contact info of all those who attended. But for whom? The County? Connect Tampa Bay? Her employer?

After her role at these meetings being called into question in an article in EyeOnTampaBay, Miklus was not seen at any more meetings.

Questions have dogged CTB since their founding about who funds them. CTB has never opened its books, but Thurman claimed on February 11th that they have “collected few donations” and that they “haven’t collected a donation in two years.”

Willis faces Hillsborough Democratic Party chair Pat Kemp, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Tim Scott and former Plant City Mayor John Dicks in a Democratic primary on August 30th. Willis recently claimed in a fundraising e-mail that he was being attacked by Tea Party supporters, but offered no evidence other than an anonymous blog post from one year ago.

The Guardian has confirmed through multiple avenues with the IRS, including the below letter from the IRS, that CTB in fact never filed the required federal tax returns.

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In its filing with the State of Florida, CTB said they voted to dissolve on March 1st, yet only filed the document to dissolve 56 days later. Their filing came just 11 days after the above letter from the IRS was made public. Their state filing also said they had “no members entitled to vote on the dissolution”, yet the board voted 3-0 to dissolve.

Thurman, speaking for CTB, was frequently quoted in the now defunct Tampa Tribune. Thurman has been quoted in the Tampa Bay Times six times this year alone.  In the Times’ latest story quoting Thurman just last week, more than 10 weeks after CTB was dissolved, Times reporter Steve Contorno still described Thurman as the “executive director of the pro-transit Connect Tampa Bay”.

The Guardian provided the state filing to Contorno via e-mail on the day his article was published online, but the Times has yet to issue a correction.

This is a developing story and we will publish updates as they become available.

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