Enterprise Florida open to more transparency after 10 News questions

5:36 AM, May 10, 2012   |    comments
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TAMPA BAY, Fla. - Following a groundbreaking report into the secretive nature of subsidies provided by the state's economic development organization, a non-partisan watchdog group is continuing to spot potential problems with how Florida doles out economic incentives.

Now, questions from the group -- along with question from the 10 News Investigators -- may be improving disclosures from the agency, Enterprise Florida.

Enterprise Florida, whose board of directors include Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, was criticized by non-profit group Integrity Florida in April. Among the findings:

  • Companies can buy a seat on the Board of Directors for $50,000.
  • Board member companies receive Enterprise Florida tax incentives. 
  • Enterprise Florida awarded contracts worth nearly $6,000,000 in 2011 to confidential companies.

But this week, more concerns were raised when Enterprise Florida apparently failed to publicize several events surrounding its Thursday board meeting in Jacksonville. They include events sponsored by private companies that receive tax dollars through Enterprise Florida.

"Enterprise Florida has been one of the most secretive agencies of state government since its inception in 1996," said Integrity Florida's Dan Krassner, who added nearly $2 billion in incentives have been awarded by the state, some with little scrutiny. "The public deserves to know how our money is being spent."

At the last meeting of Enterprise Florida, Gov. Scott didn't just stress creating jobs, but also board members helping other board members.

"The Enterprise Florida board can change the direction of the state," Scott was quoted in meeting minutes. "Get to know fellow board members, find out how you can help their business."

On Thursday, the Enterprise Florida board is expected to approve switching its health insurance vendor from United Health Care, which does not have a member on the Enterprise Florida board, to Florida Blue, which does have a member on the board.

While the meeting agenda acknowledges the potential conflict of interest, a cocktail and dinner reception the night before the vote was still sponsored by Florida Blue.

A spokesman from Enterprise Florida also said the office wasn't involved in a Thursday night event hosted by AT&T, which receives economic subsidies. Yet the event is being organized by an Enterprise Florida staffer, using Enterprise Florida resources.

Krassner says his group's questions into whether the events would be open to the public were ignored. But the 10 News Investigators pressed for answers and were told the events with multiple Enterprise Florida board members present would be public.

"Thankfully," Krassner said, "the (10 News) Investigators started asking questions and now all the meetings of Enterprise Florida are going to be open to the public this week. Now the public and the media can attend and find out where our money is being spent, how many jobs are being created, and when they are getting here. Because we need those jobs."

More than 800,000 Floridians are unemployed. 

Krassner also found possible "self-dealing" in older Enterprise Florida dealings, including the Florida Opportunity Fund (FOF), a program that invests in businesses and infrastructure projects.

At a November 2011 meeting for the FOF, only three board members were present: Ken Wright from Baker Hostetler, Brian Nicholas from BB&T, and Peter Pizarro from eLandia Group.

When the possibility of a $2.25 million award came up for FL Biofuels' "clean energy investment program," Nicholas recused himself from voting since BB&T stood to gain financially from FL Biofuels.

After a closed-door presentation, the other two board members approved the $2.25 million award.

Krassner says the culture at Enterprise Florida needs to shift, but recent meetings in Tallahassee have him confident the tides are turning and there is an appetite for more accountability and transparency.

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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