Orlando-Orange expressway authority members face grand jury on public records probe

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Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority board members will appear before a special grand jury on Thursday, part of an eight-month investigation of the toll-road agency.

Chairman Walter Ketcham, Noranne Downs and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs confirm they will willingly answer questions from the grand jury called by State Attorney Jeff Ashton.

Two board members, Marco Pena and Scott Batterson did not respond to reporters’ calls, writes Dan Tracy of the Orlando Sentinel.

Ashton began the investigation in September, looking into claims that Batterson, Pena and Downs had 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 insist they are innocent.

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

Tracy notes 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.

Often, grand jury procedures include hearing from the individuals involved in a probe prior to making a decision to issue indictments.

Ketcham tells Tracy he is curious about what the grand jury will ask.

“I’m not sure what all they are after and who all they are after,” Ketcham said.

 

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.