3 Orlando Expressway Authority members investigated for open records violations

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Three members of the Orlando County Expressway Authority are under grand jury investigation for allegations they violated Florida’s open records laws.

State attorney Jeff Ashton is investigating claims that board members Scott Batterson, Marco Pena and Noranne Downs discussed – either among themselves or through intermediaries – the employment of former expressway head Max Crumit. By Florida law, any such discussions are open records and can only take place in front to the public.

Crumit resigned in September after the three members voted against him in a no-confidence vote. 

“The grand jury for Orange County has requested that I assist them in exploring the facts surrounding the departure of the authority’s previous executive director, the selection of Mr. (Steve) Precourt and certain other matters,” Ashton said in a memo obtained by Dan Tracy of the Orlando Sentinel.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs asked Ashton if the OCEA could hire one of the three finalists for the Authority’s leading job. Ashton did give permission to the five-member board, which includes Jacobs.

“In so far as we are aware,” Ashton said in an email to Jacobs, “none of those candidates have been implicated in any wrongdoing related to this matter.”

The memo is the first indication that his investigation is moving to a grand jury, after five months of looking at the board actions.

Batterson, Downs and Pena told the Sentinel they had no idea a grand jury was investigating, and all three insist they are innocent.

If convicted, they could spend up to 60 days in jail and pay $500 in fines.

Authority officials planned to hire former state Rep. Steve Precourt on a monthly basis until Ashton completes his investigation. Precourt refused.

In a meeting Wednesday, the board postponed hiring a director until after the end of the 2014 state legislative session, which is two months away. Lawmakers in both chambers are considering a proposal to turn the Authority into a regional agency.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.