Sunday, February 11, 2007

Expressway Authority Chairman wants more oversight of the agency's lobbyists and more competition for the work.


Lobbyists zip through X-way cash

Records show little oversight and no bidding on lucrative contracts.

February 11, 2007

Dan Tracy and Jay Hamburg
Orlando Sentinel
Copyright 2007

Consensus Communications has been paid $288,000 as a federal lobbyist for the area's toll-road agency during the past four years. Yet the Orlando company never has signed a contract or had to compete for the work.

Another lobbying firm employed by the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority -- Southern Strategy Group of Tallahassee -- is paid $174,000 a year to represent the authority to Florida politicians and bureaucrats. The firm's 2006 post-legislative report to the agency consisted of a 352-page document downloaded from a state Web site. The dearth of documentation and detailed reports makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of the authority's team of lobbyists, collectively paid $318,000 a year.

A public-records request by the Orlando Sentinel for correspondence between the authority and its lobbyists since 2003 netted a couple of dozen e-mails, 50 one- to two-paragraph memos, two generic legislative reports, a bound presentation to the board in January 2003, some letters of support for a planned interchange and copies of federal-grant applications.

But expressway officials say the lobbyists are worth the money they've been paid and have helped land millions in grants for the authority.

Expressway Executive Director Mike Snyder said the lobbyists -- who report primarily to him -- have not generated much documentation of their work, but he said his agency is pleased with their efforts.

"I haven't felt the need for it [paperwork]," Snyder said. "I know they are working. I know they are doing things."

The lobbyists, Snyder said, act as the "eyes and ears" of the authority in Tallahassee and Washington They talk often with him, he said, keeping him abreast of bills that might affect the agency.

And Consensus Communications, he said, helped secure a $10.4 million federal grant to help pay for a proposed interchange at Boggy Creek Road with the authority's State Road 417 toll road.

But Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, the new authority chairman, said he wants more oversight of the agency's lobbyists and more competition for the work. He promised changes, saying that all lobbying contracts will be put up for bid by summer. They had been routinely granted one-year extensions.

"Certainly there needs to be more visible communication between the lobbyists and the board," Crotty said.

Critic questions need

Ron Book, one of the best-known and most outspoken lobbyists in Tallahassee, said government clients often want detailed information about his activities on their behalf.

One of Book's many clients, Miami-Dade County, demands weekly reports during the session and monthly updates after the session.

"They want to know what we did for them," Book said.

He called Southern Strategy a solid, respected lobbying firm as well as a potential competitor for some clients. But he said he was surprised by the size of its fee from the expressway authority, given that the agency wasn't involved in any major legislative initiatives.

"That's a high-end battle fee," Book said. "That's for a war."

Southern Strategy lobbyist David Rancourt referred questions to Snyder, who credited the group with three major accomplishments: helping stave off attempts to make the authority part of an overarching statewide toll system; winning a state law in 2002 that allowed the agency to issues its own bonds, rather than going through the state; and pushing the Wekiva Parkway and Protection Act in 2004 that aims to balance the need to complete a beltway system around Orlando while shielding environmentally sensitive lands.

"They know the ropes," Snyder said about Southern Strategy. "They know the people."

But Lou Treadway, a former Orange County commissioner and a member of the bipartisan CountyWatch, which advocates for open government, questions why the Orlando agency even has lobbyists. The authority, he said, did not have them when he was a member in 1986-87. He also wondered why the expressway paid its lobbyists more than either Orlando or Orange County paid theirs.

"Orlando and Orange County have a lot more at stake in legislation than a little dinky organization called the expressway authority," he said.

Although the expressway authorities in Tampa and Miami also have lobbyists, the very legality of such agencies hiring lobbying firms is now in dispute.

The state auditor general reviewed the accounts of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority and announced late last year that the agency did not have the statutory power to hire contract lobbyists. It recommended the toll-road agency assign a staff member take over the duties.

The Tampa authority disagreed and continues to pay for outside lobbyists. The auditor general has no enforcement powers.

Orlando expressway attorney Scott Glass said the auditor general's opinion is flawed and does not pertain to the Orlando agency.

2 prime lobbyists

The authority has two prime lobbyists: Southern Strategy, led by John Thrasher, the former Republican speaker of the Florida House; and Dennis Foreman, a former federal Treasury Department attorney based in Washington.

Southern, which has worked for the authority since July 2002, is paid $12,500 a month. It also has a subconsultant, John Johnston of Tallahassee, who is paid an additional $2,000 a month.

Foreman, the federal lobbyist, was hired in February 2003 and gets $6,000 a month. He hired Consensus for $6,000 a month, making the contract worth a total of $12,000 per month.

Unlike Johnston, who is listed on Southern's contract with the authority, Consensus or the company's main contact -- Tre' Evers -- does not appear on any contract with the agency.

That situation prompted an e-mail exchange in August 2003 between two expressway authority employees -- one in contracts, the other in accounting -- who were puzzled about the agency's relationship with Consensus.

"I am not aware of any direct agreement with Consensus Communications, if you learn of anything different, please let me know," read one of the e-mails.

Evers said authority officials told him in 2003 that he did not need a contract because he was a subcontractor. He said he works hard for the agency and spent more than two years negotiating with politicians to get the Boggy Creek money.

"That's a pretty good return on investment," Evers said, comparing his fee with the $10.4 million grant.

The agency also was in line to get another $1 million federal grant late last year, but the appropriation died when the Republicans failed to pass a budget and the Democrats took over, Evers said.

Most spend less

The scarcity of records to support invoices such as those for the lobbyists has been an ongoing issue at the expressway authority. Two years ago, the Orange County Comptroller's Office reviewed agency books and recommended tighter oversight of contractors. Most recently, the authority was criticized for its lax management of a $1.7 million marketing consultant and is locked in a battle with the former contract holder over an alleged lack of billing records.

The authority is in the midst of another comptroller audit, this time because it was revealed in August that the agency had paid $107,500 to anti-toll activist Doug Guetzloe -- payments approved by former Chairman Allan Keen without the knowledge of other board members. Local governments, such as Orlando and Orange County, as well as other state transportation agencies, including the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, MetroPlan and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, appear to seek considerably more documentation from lobbyists as a way to monitor the work and assess performance, a survey by the Sentinel found.

Orlando and Orange County, for instance, typically receive personalized reports before, during and after state legislative sessions. They also have at least one in-house staff member who travels and visits politicians with the contract lobbyist in Tallahassee and Washington.

"We're close-knit," said Kathy Russell, who manages the lobbying team for Orlando. She estimates the city lobbyists usually are involved with 100 bills each session in Tallahassee.

The Sentinel's survey also found that almost all of the other governments and agencies spend less on lobbying than the expressway authority. The only exception was the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which has an operating budget more than five times larger than the expressway authority's and which deals much more frequently with federal officials.

GOAA, which employs four lobbyists, including Consensus Communications, often goes after grant money from the federal government for everything from building runways to repairing hurricane damage.

Since 2002, the airport has won more than $148.7 million from the Federal Aviation Administration, including more than $13 million in 2004 for hurricane repairs.

Dan Tracy can be reached at 407-420-5444 or Jay Hamburg can be reached at or 407-420-5673.

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