Meetings with Chris Dorworth could put bond seller’s job in jeopardy

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Norman Pellegrini enjoyed his role as the point man for bond sales at Orlando’s toll-road agency, winning more than $2 billion in business since 2003 and $9.5 million in commissions and fees for his employers.

Now the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority is regional agency, with new managers and a board representing Seminole, Osceola and Lake Counties —  not just Orange.

Pellegrini’s position could now be in jeopardy, writes Dan Tracy of the Orlando Sentinel.

The new Central Florida Expressway Authority is considering a policy change, making it difficult for a lone salesperson to dominate the way the agency raises money for maintenance and expansion of its 109-mile network.

Pellegrini’s firms, UBS and Citi, represented sales of least 25 percent of the Agency’s interest-rate-swap bonds.

Pellegrini’s shaky footing with the new board comes as he gave recent testimony over a meeting with former state legislator-turned-lobbyist Chris Dorworth and a prospective board member that might have broken Florida’s open meetings laws.

Pellegrini met regularly with members of the old board, and testimony given to a grand jury indicates Pellegrini also reached out to Marco Peña before he got his agency seat.

Peña told state investigators probing the inner workings of the agency that he met Pellegrini through. That gathering may have broken a little-known federal law.

Dorworth insists he was in the right. A Citi spokesperson said in an email that Pellegrini also broke no laws.

During the mid-1990s, the federal Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board created a rule (G-38) prohibiting firms and individuals who selling bonds from paying intermediaries to obtain or retain business. Authorities decided that bond salespersons used political influence as a way to win accounts.

A Florida-maintained database shows Dorworth having Citibank as a client, as does Tallahassee lobbying firm Ballard Partners — Dorworth’s employer.

Peña testified that Dorworth and Pellegrini met with him for lunch just before his appointment by Gov. Rick Scott in July 2013. Peña said the conversation was over authority finances, including interest-rate-swap bonds sold by Citi.

“We worked on that,” they told Peña, “and we helped them restructure their bonds and stuff. And they were acting like the good guys, and I don’t know any different.”

Citi public affairs senior vice president Scott Helfman said Pellegrini’s preliminary meeting with Peña broke no laws, since Peña was not yet on the authority board.

Dorworth referred to the lunch as “social. … Mr. Pellegrini was very aware of these rules and was very clear with me about what I could and couldn’t say. My interactions with Mr. Peña were entirely with the rule.”

Enforcing rule G-38 is the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC will not comment on active investigations without charges filed. Possible penalties include surrendering bond proceeds, although there is no way to say exactly how much.

Investigators questioning Peña asked if Dorworth, Pellegrini and others offered a “circle of influence” to help him get on the board, A grand jury spent nine months looking into issues at the agency.

“I think they are, you know, well connected,” Peña responded, “and could help in my appointment. But I had others and I think the governor looks at people in the business world as people that they like their opinion as well.”

John Tupps, a representative for Scott, said the governor obtained three letters supporting Peña, none of which came from Dorworth or Pellegrini.

“Governor Scott expects appointees to serve with honesty and integrity and that’s why he worked with Central Florida legislators to reform the OOCEA,” Tupps told the Sentinel in an email.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.