OOCEA grand jury indictments could come as soon as today

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The grand jury investigating members of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority may issue indictments this afternoon, according to the office of state attorney Jeff Ashton.

OOCEA chair Walter Ketcham just completed his testimony, reports Dan Tracy of the Orlando Sentinel, and said he believes “a partial decision” would come down by the grand jury.

The panel was “very interested, very knowledgeable, and they were very astute,” Ketcham said.

Ashton also agreed there was “a possibility” an indictment could come later today.

“We cannot say with certainty there will be an indictment issued,” said Ashton spokesperson Noel Piros in an email to the media.

Earlier in the day, OOCEA board members Noranne Downs and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs testified.

Tracy reports that the Jacobs appeared first, spending more than an hour on the stand.

“They asked very insightful questions,” Jacobs told reporters afterward. “And I came away from this feeling very good about the process.”

Noranne Downs testified for about an hour, declining to comment after the testimony. Downs’ attorney,  Henry Coxe, did provide a statement, saying his client was there “voluntarily because she did nothing wrong.”

Ashton began the investigation in September, looking into claims board members Scott Batterson, Marco Pena and Downs conducted private conversations about removing former director Max Crumit after two years on the job.

Florida sunshine laws require all authority business discussed during public meetings. If convicted, violators could spend to 60 days in jail and be fined $500.

The three board members, who appeared before the grand jury voluntarily, insist they are innocent..

Investigators from Ashton’s office also attended OOCEA meetings discussing land purchases, including properties owned by Project Orlando, a group led by Maitland attorney Jim Palmer.

Tracy previously reported that Project Orlando is planning a project called Kelly Park Crossings, a billion-dollar development at the sole interchange about 15 miles from the Wekiva Parkway, the $1.66 billion toll road under construction by the authority and the state.

Maitland-based IBI Group, Batterson’s employer, worked on the Kelly Park Crossings project through June 2011.

Ashton acquired emails, later reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel, which show Batterson introduced Palmer to potential investors as late as last June.

Batterson called the introductions a “common courtesy,” adding that he will not be paid for his efforts. Authority rules state he must recuse himself from voting on Kelly Park Crossings matters for two years after the end of his business relationship with Project Orlando.

Batterson and Pena did not respond to calls from the Orlando Sentinel.

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.