ORLANDO — A former Florida lawmaker, a state transportation official and a former board member of an Orlando expressway authority were indicted Wednesday on misdemeanor charges of violating public meeting laws. A grand jury indicted former Florida House member Chris Dorworth, Florida Department of Transportation public affairs worker Rebekah Hammond and Scott Batterson, a former board member of the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority.
The indictments came hours after another former board member, Marco Pena, pleaded guilty to violating Florida’s open meetings law and testified in front of the grandjury. State Attorney Jeff Ashton said the grand jurors asked him to convey their concerns about the perceived “culture of corruption” surrounding the Expressway Authority.
“The grand jurors feel that by their decisions, it’s pretty clear that in their opinion that culture has not completely abated, despite the efforts of some very well-meaning, well intentioned people at the Expressway Authority,”Ashton said. Dorworth, Hammond and Batterson face a maximum 60 days in jail, six months’ probation and $500 fine for their misdemeanor charges. The state Department of Transportation said Hammond resigned Wednesday. In a written statement, the department said it had cooperated with the investigation.
They are all accused of participating in meetings and communicating through “conduits, intermediaries or third parties,” information related to the official acts to be taken by the expressway board. Phone and email messages left with Dorworth and Hammond were not immediately returned. A message left with Batterson’s attorney was also not immediately returned.
Pena didn’t appear in court for his plea but his attorney entered it on his behalf to a misdemeanor charge. Under the agreement, Pena avoids jail time and probation, and is paying a $500 fine. Ashton also wouldn’t specify what Pena, Dorworth, Hammond and Batterson allegedly did to violate the Sunshine Law. Discovery documents detailing the charges won’t be released until after they are made available to each defendant. However, the state attorney’s office said Tuesday that Pena had given Ashton sworn testimony regarding the open meetings violations involving Expressway Authority business. Dorworth was defeated in the 2012 elections. He currently works at Ballard Partners in Orlando. It’s one of the big lobbying firms in Tallahassee and is run by Brian Ballard, a major fundraiser for the Florida GOP and Gov. Rick Scott. The Expressway Authority handles the operation of toll roads in Orlando and Orange County.
The state attorney’s office began investigating Expressway Authority board members for possible open meeting law violations following claims that Pena, Batterson and Noranne Downs conspired to oust former member Max Crumit, who left in September 2013. All three previously denied wrongdoing. But state attorney’s office Executive Director Richard Wallsh told Judge Carolyn Freeman that the Sunshine Law offenses Pena pleaded to occurred between June and August of 2013. Steve Precourt, who has represented parts of central Florida in the Florida House since 2006, and served as majority leader in 2013 was named as Crumit’s replacement in early January. However, he declined the position because of the state attorney’s investigation.
Pena was appointed to the board last year by Gov. Scott but resigned last month shortly after Batterson was indicted on felony bribery and two felony counts of solicitation for receiving unlawful compensation. Batterson was suspended short time later by Scott. Last month the state attorney’s office released more than 500 pages of sworn statements that witnesses made to investigators. The interviews include testimony about non-public meetings that Batterson had with Dorworth, Hammond, Jason Brodeur and others in which Expressway Authority- related business was discussed.