A half-year ago we politely asked the question that was on the lips of every casual observer of government in Central Florida: exactly what in the hell is going on at the OOCEA, an organization with a mission so boring that the width of bike paths should normally define the outer limits of spirited debate.
But the story that began to emerge last fall was extraordinary because it involved the classic elements of big money, raw political influence and government corruption. And as the story continues to unfold, the casualties of a failed coup d’etat at the OOCEA are mounting, and the promising careers of professionals and the OOCEA itself have been damaged or destroyed in the maelstrom. And now the question on everyone’s lips? Who’s next?
For those of you late to the party, a brief recap.
The OOCEA is a road-building and toll authority with an annual budget that exceeds that of many small nations. Its bonded debt alone runs in the billions of dollars. The Authority had big plans to build even more roads to accommodate the explosive growth of Central Florida. With its hundreds of millions of dollars in annual cash flow and dreams of asphalt crisscrossing vast swaths of Florida, the obscure regional agency sat like a juicy ripe plum to be plucked by someone with the audacity and ambition to control its resources.
Until last fall the person at the helm of the OOCEA was Max Crumit, a civil engineer with decades of experience in transportation. Crumit had the reputation as a straight shooter who proved over time reluctant to kowtow to every monied local interest with a pet project or designs on a lucrative OOCEA contract. Predictably, Crumit accumulated his share of detractors.
In his role as executive director of the OOCEA, Crumit had one massive vulnerability: He served at the pleasure of a five-person board that includes gubernatorial appointees, and that board is not beyond the reach of political influence.
In Tallahassee, lobbyists have grown a cottage industry around stacking local boards with hand-picked applicants who are appointed by the Governor. Some lobbyists, particularly those known to be prodigious fundraisers, play this game very well. It is one of the least noticed but most important ways Tallahassee lobbyists exert their influence throughout Florida, and it is played out behind the scenes in the Governor’s Appointments Office and sometimes in the executive suite itself.
In the autumn of 2013, the OOCEA Board consisted of Walter Ketcham, a respected member of the Orlando legal community, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, and Noranne Downs, the Florida Department of Transportation District 5 secretary. On an organizational chart, Downs answered to the DOT Central Office in Tallahassee and its secretary, Ananth Prasad.
The board also included Scott Batterson, a young and ambitious Orlando engineer with the easy manner who bestows the title of “bro” on even casual acquaintances. In August 2011, Batterson was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott after Batterson was sponsored in the appointments process by a lobbyist.
The lobbyist was Chris Dorworth, a former House member and Speaker-in-waiting until he was upset in his re-election bid. Dorworth is now a lobbyist with one of Florida’s largest lobbying firms, Ballard Partners. Ballard Partners is the corporate offspring of Brian Ballard, an outspoken (and sometimes controversial) lobbyist known for his aggressive lobbying style and fundraising ability.
About two years later, in July 2013, a young hospital executive named Marco Pena was also appointed to the board under very similar circumstances. Never mind that being part of the management team of a hospital has nothing to do with expressways, like Batterson before him, Pena was easily pushed through the gubernatorial appointments process with Dorworth’s help.
And here’s where things get interesting. With the appointment of Pena, a voting bloc on the board seemed to effortlessly coalesce almost overnight. Downs, who conceivably could be heavily influenced by her bosses in Tallahassee, began to see the world much like Batterson and Pena saw the world, one that could be reinvented in new and interesting ways if only Crumit were no longer in the picture.
Despite having served on the board for only a few weeks, a very well-prepared Pena arrived at the August 2013 board meeting with three pages of talking points that amounted to an indictment of Crumit’s performance as executive director. Downs, who had already officially submitted paperwork to be on vacation during that board meeting, somehow divined that her presence was important and scuttled her vacation so she could attend that meeting. Batterson, too, seemed loaded for bear or, more accurately, loaded for Crumit.
In what seemed like the most well-coordinated removal of organizational leadership since the climactic hit scene in The Godfather, the three — Pena, Downs, and Batterson — voted to oust Crumit from his job. The two other board members, Ketcham and Jacobs, objected to what was playing out before them, but they were outvoted.
While Crumit’s removal may have appeared unseemly, there is no law prohibiting the sloppy firing of a dedicated public servant. But, there is the Sunshine Law, which makes it a crime for public officials to directly or through surrogates communicate with one another about the public’s business outside the “sunshine” of open public meetings.
Both Ketcham and Jacobs thought that for a group that was not supposed to be communicating with one another behind the scenes, the coordinated ouster of Crumit showed either the most remarkable demonstration of telepathy in the history of governance or that someone was talking a little bit too much outside a public meeting. Ketcham voiced his concerns in a letter to the OOCEA’s general counsel, and the general counsel forwarded Ketcham’s letter to Jeff Ashton, the local state attorney.
And now let us pause to note the first body on the floor in the OOCEA saga: Max Crumit.
Ashton began an inquiry into the matter, and with it began a guessing game that has consumed all the available bandwidth during cocktail chatter by the power elite in Orlando in the ensuing months. The first question that came to mind was, if coordination occurred in violation of the Sunshine Law, precisely who was doing the coordinating? A number of theories emerged:
- The three-member voting bloc was sufficiently obtuse to actually communicate directly behind the scenes, a glaring violation of the Sunshine Law.
- Rebekah Hammond, the legislative director for District 5, not only works for Downs, but she is also the girlfriend of Dorworth. She has a high-paying job that was created for her when Dorworth was still in office and had tremendous influence over the District 5 budget.
- Ananth Prasad, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation and the overlord of Downs, and a person who was at least closely monitoring the events leading to Crumit’s ouster. Before the August OOCEA meeting, for example, Prasad very presciently warned Jacobs to expect “fireworks” at the meeting over the ouster of Crumit.
- Dorworth, who seemed to be powerfully linked to all three members of the voting bloc.
While rumors swirled about the varying levels of cooperation in the investigation among the list of potential targets, in what has to expand the definition of chutzpah to a different realm, some of the OOCEA board members — while facing a possible criminal investigation — decided it was the perfect time to turn the next page in the coup d’etat playbook.
How to explain this monumental lapse of judgment? It’s almost as if they were dutifully going through the checklist in Overthrowing Governments for Dummies and they came upon Step 2: install puppet dictator. And who better to act as their guy on the ground? None other than Rep. Steve Precourt, a longtime ally of Dorworth whose bonds of friendship had been forged while they worked closely together in the Florida House of Representatives.
Suffice it to say the push for Precourt to become executive director did not work out well. After several attempts by board members to advance his selection, State Attorney Ashton sent a letter to the OOCEA board and openly suggested that they might want to delay the hiring decision until the criminal investigation was concluded. And yet, in a display of hubris, in January Precourt stepped down from his House seat in anticipation of becoming the executive director of the OOCEA.
By now whatever compulsion Downs felt to side with Batterson and Pena had evaporated, and in its place was a tightly calibrated strategy aimed at simply surviving the ballooning scandal. Downs voted with Ketchum and Jacobs to offer Precourt a month-to-month contract, an arrangement that Precourt rejected in a letter freighted with clunky legal jargon carefully chosen to support a future lawsuit. No longer a powerful legislator and never given the chance to run the OOCEA under his terms, Precourt turned to the private sector for a job.
Body Number Two: Steve Precourt
In the same letter in which he cautioned against hiring Precourt, Ashton also strongly hinted that a grand jury might be impaneled to dig deeper into the OOCEA affair. Soon it became evident that Ashton had followed through, and texts and emails between the major players, including those in Tallahassee, were being scrutinized, and the OOCEA members themselves were invited to appear before the grand jury and share their stories.
Bodies Number Three and Four: Scott Batterson and the OOCEA
On April 24, as the legislative session was in full swing, Ashton dropped a bombshell: OOCEA board member Scott Batterson was charged with a three-count felony indictment by the grand jury. Officials made clear it was an interim finding that virtually promised more indictments to come. Batterson was summarily removed from office by the Governor.
Two things became obvious that day. The grand jury was looking at corruption that extended far beyond a Sunshine Law violation, and the existence of the OOCEA dangled by a frayed thread. The shockwaves of the indictment rippled to Tallahassee and a week later the Legislature created a new expressway authority in Central Florida and ordered the dismantling of the OOCEA. In so doing, and clearly in light of the OOCEA fiasco, the Legislature severely limited the Governor’s ability to control the composition of the new board. After decades of operation and billions of dollars spent and received, the OOCEA will soon be no more.
Body Number Five: Marco Pena
While board member Pena had shown an almost heedless enthusiasm for being a central part of the power grab, by now even a young man of his seemingly boundless confidence was beginning to find that Orlando can be a scary place when there’s a focused state attorney with a grand jury that seems comfortable with working double shifts. On May 16, Pena abruptly resigned from the OOCEA, citing nebulous “personal reasons” for his short-lived service on the board.
And as the OOCEA body count grows, the needle on the decibel meter is testing new highs among the chattering class in Orlando. Speculation is rampant about the strategy underlying Ashton’s early indictment of Batterson, and the self-removal of Pena is being analyzed with an intensity normally associated with the defection of a Russian spy. There is talk about flipping witnesses, immunity offers, and a growing interest among federal law enforcement agencies in some of the characters involved in the OOCEA scandal.
Little is known with certainty, but what is clear is that while the OOCEA is sinking beneath the surface, its ripples will continue to rock the lives of the people who were central to its demise.
Let the bodies hit the floor.
Peter Schorsch is a political consultant and new media publisher based in St. Petersburg. Column courtesy of Context Florida.