Legislatures don’t like to raise taxes. So they delegate that dirty work to taxing districts or tolling authorities — entities of their creation. Clean hands on taxes? Maybe. Clean hands overall? Far from.
The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority isn’t top of the list for public interest, and that’s just how they want it to stay.
Billions of dollars funnel through the OOCEA, which is responsible for the tolling and maintenance of five expressways in Orlando, and for the development of a sixth: the Wekiva Parkway, a 27-mile toll road completing the beltway around metro Orlando.
Therein lies some fertile ground for corruption. Without cracking open the whole coconut, let’s take some sips from its sweet shell.
Rewind a few years to Chris Dorworth’s glory days as Speaker Designate. There’s no need to rehash in its entirety the work of Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell who suspected that Dorworth’s financial ties were less than kosher for a person in his role. Maxwell relentlessly detailed Dorworth’s relationship with mega-developer Jim Palmer, and these reports played a central role in his unforeseen loss at the polls.
Upon leaving office, Dorworth has gone about confirming the smell Maxwell followed on his trail. And this is where it leads.
Max Crumit, executive director of the OOCEO who ran the agency “to rave reviews for almost two years” was told in a private August 26 meeting with board member Scott Batterson that he needed to resign immediately. Batterson warned that he had the three votes necessary to fire Crumit at the board meeting that would take place two days later. Crumit did not resign.
The three votes to remove Crumit were to come from Batterson, an engineer and investor who slaloms between conflicts of interest in making official votes; Noranne Downs , who works for Florida’s Department of Transportation and runs and runs the agency in Central Florida; and the board’s newest member, Marco Pena, who had been appointed by Gov. Rick Scott just a month prior and had attended just one board meeting to date.
How would these three members be able to coordinate the ousting of Crumit without even so much of a whisper being made in the sunshine at a board meeting? A torturously narrow path without breaking Florida’s Sunshine Laws which forbid private communication between members and forbid the use of conduits to achieve such communication.
If there is any doubt about whether this effort was orchestrated, consider that Pena showed up at the meeting with a three-page document outlining his reasons for wanting Crumit gone, and Downs decided to show up at the meeting despite having already filed an excused absence for a family vacation.
OOCEA board chairman Walter Ketcham smelled something rotten in Denmark. He penned a letter to the board’s general counsel asking that he investigate a breach of Sunshine, and the general counsel forwarded the correspondence to State Attorney Jeffrey Ashton, requesting assistance to investigate events surrounding the August 28 meeting.
Violations of the Sunshine Law constitute a second degree misdemeanor, and no doubt these three members understand the ramifications.
Assuming Batterson, Downs and Pena were crafty enough to avoid leaving a trail of direct exchange, the focus turns to conduits. And who would that lead us back to?
Most likely, it was Dorworth and Co. And by company, we’re probably talking about Palmer.
Dorworth works for Palmer. Batterson is an engineer with business ties to Dorworth and Palmer. Dorworth recommended Batterson for appointment to the board, but didn’t disclose these relationships when he issued his recommendation.
Dorworth also represents Citibank, which it turns out had issued bad bond deals to the OOCEA — deals bad enough to cause a major shakeup in the agency, which led to Crumit’s hire and his ushering in of a new era of ethics and transparency.
With the culture he inherited, Crumit might have been wise to keep his mouth shut in the spirit of job tenure. But instead, when he saw what he thought were overpayments for land to Palmer, he spoke up. He scrutinized bond deals. He hired people without connections.
Hires that had no personal stake in the deals being made by the board? How dare he.
But now, with Crumit out the door and God-knows-who coming in, don’t be at all surprised if one certain legislator-turned-lobbyist becomes registered to represent the OOCEO before the body he was once slated to lead.
That, my friends, assumes that the State Attorney doesn’t turn up something tasty first.