Naples Daily News by Arek Sarkissian
April 10, 2017
House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants two companies that received millions in secret appropriations to detail how they spent the taxpayer money.
A Fernandina Beach psychological firm run by the friend of a state senator received $1 million in this year’s Florida State University budget with the lawmaker’s help but failed to produce the results it promised, the Naples Daily News has reported.
An online education company operated from the Miami office of a lobbyist received $2 million in the Florida Polytechnic University budget but served fewer students at a greater cost than a separate program run through the University of Central Florida, the Daily News reported.
Corcoran’s letters threatened to make the universities return the money if details aren’t provided by Thursday about how the companies spent the money or if they failed to use it as required.
“Because the length of the Legislature’s regular session is constitutionally limited, time is of the essence regarding this request for documentation,” Corcoran’s letter states. “Otherwise, the Florida House will assume that performance under the contracts was insufficient to justify any of the prior or future expenditures under the contracts, and all necessary steps will be taken to preserve and conserve taxpayer dollars.”
Corcoran’s letter states he is taking the action because the House, “in the service of its solemn responsibilities as a faithful steward of taxpayer dollars, exercises oversight of public agencies and their vendors to determine whether their expenditures are returning the best value to the taxpayers.”
The two programs are among dozens that have received taxpayer money through secret appropriations tucked inside university budgets at the end of legislative sessions. The Daily News has detailed how lawmakers have used the process to secure $315 million for special projects over the past seven years.
Corcoran imposed new House rules that require lawmakers to make such requests through a bill that can be considered by legislators. The secret process does not require the projects to be voted on or disclosed, and it protects the projects from a governor’s line-item veto. The Senate, however, did not adopt the new House rule and continues to allow senators to submit the requests to budget writers.
Over seven months the mental health screening program operated by Florida Psychological Associates completed 241 of the 3,800 mental health assessments promised in goals outlined in its contract with FSU.
Despite not meeting the goals, FSU, which kept $200,000 of the taxpayer money, has paid Florida Psychological Associates $590,191.
State Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, helped his friend Nassau County Tax Collector John Drew obtain the money for the program run by Drew’s wife, according to legislative records and emails.
The emails also indicate Drew expected Bean to market the mental health assessment program in other states, but Bean denied any role in the business.
FSU and Florida Psychological Associates have declined several requests for records from the Daily News to detail how the taxpayer money was used.
Florida Polytechnic University gave the Miami-based Educational Management Services $2 million to launch the online anti-hazing course to be used by the state’s 12 public universities. Ninety-five students — all of them at FPU — completed the hazing class.
EMS is led by Alina Gomez, the wife of Miami lobbyist Fausto Gomez. The program she operated was created with an initial $1.5 million line item clearly listed in the 2016 state budget. However, a second $1.5 million in this year’s budget was secretly tucked inside the FPU budget.
FPU kept $1 million in taxpayer money and thus far has paid the company $1.7 million.
House budget Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said the House has asked FPU to consider canceling payment for the final $300,000 invoice submitted by EMS.
In contrast, another online hazing course at the University of Central Florida operated by Largo-based AliveTek has taught roughly 40,000 students. That program received $1 million from the state budget.
In the letters Corcoran asked the universities to provide contracts and invoices for payment, along with any canceled checks.
They also must provide any memoranda of understanding “and all other documents memorializing agreements and business agreements between the companies” and “any other business entity or person in connection with performance under the contract,” the letter states.
Other items Corcoran requested include invoices, receipts, written acknowledgments and time sheets reflecting any costs, bills or labor covered by the state money.
He also asked for all communication between officers in the companies about the money they received.
Senate budget committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said the FSU program was cut from next year’s budget.
After learning from the Daily News of the poorly performing hazing class, Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, withdrew his request to provide the program more money. [READ MORE]