Wauchula, Florida -- Finding a job is a tough task for thousands of Floridians. So when word a new company was coming to a small Bay area town, people had hope.
Rural Hardee County gave the company millions of dollars, but as the 10 News Investigators discovered, a group of powerful politicians without any company or product already had their own plans for that money.
About an hour east of Sarasota, Hardee County is worlds away from the life most of us know. Not only is Hardee one of the smallest counties in the state, it is also one of the poorest, with nearly 29 percent of the people living below the poverty level.
A woman we'll call "Teresa" told us she's been looking for a job for a year and half, but can't find one. Teresa is so embarrassed about being out of work she asked us not to show her face on TV or use her last name. She has gone to the Hardee County work force office twice a week, hoping to find anyone who will hire a 55-year-old woman.
She said, "I don't know what the future holds for me. I just keep plugging along."
When asked if it scares her, Teresa said, "Sure it does. Some days I feel like I'm one step away from being under the bridge."
Teresa might have been able to cash in on a $2.6 million economic development grant the county was handing out, but it wasn't in the cards for her, because some powerful people already had their own plan for that money.
Tampa State Rep. Jamie Grant's company, "LifeSync Technologies," pitched a bold plan to county officials: give them the $2.6 million, and LifeSync would create a cloud-based medical records firm and bring jobs to Hardee County. Public records indicate Grant had powerful allies, including State Representative Jason Broduer from Orlando, State Representative Ben Albritton of Hardee County, and his brother, Hardee County insurance agency owner Joe Albritton.
Grant told 10 News he wasn't interested in an interview after we tracked him down in Tallahassee, after he avoided us for weeks in Tampa.
"Your facts are off there, Mike," Grant told us. "And you need to check your facts."
He added that Joe Albritton has no equity in his company. But when we double checked, we found Albritton, who was on the board that gave Grant the money, abstained from voting on the issue involving Grant's company because he is "part owner."
Albritton also abstained at another meeting, and his disclosure form said both he and his brother, Rep. Ben Albritton, could receive special gain from LifeSync.
Grant is adamant there was nothing improper and said, "The allegation that anybody who was involved in the grant process that received equity was related to a legislator or received equity is completely offensive."
But critics of the LifeSync deal suggest what is offensive is that it appears the deck was stacked, because the head of the county agency that issued the grant is Jim See. See just happens to be an uncle to the Albritton brothers, and shares office space with Joe Albritton.
But it doesn't stop there: the son of Sue Birge, the chair of the Hardee Board of Commissioners, was also hired by the company. We asked Birge if that could open her up to criticism by creating an appearance of impropriety.
She replied, "I can't help what people's opinions are. I just know he was qualified for the job."
And Jim See says the same about his son, who was also hired by the company.
See said, "So, you are saying I threw in my two cents in that. 'You need to hire my son or we're not going to give you money.' Is that what you're trying to insinuate?"
We told See some are saying it does look questionable. He replied, "I told the truth. They don't want to hear the truth."
But the truth that legislators involved in the company and Hardee County don't want anyone to hear about is a scathing report from the auditor general, which said the $2.6 million should never have been given to LifeSync. It cited several reasons:
- The company wasn't legally qualified to get the money
- The company didn't offer proof it was capable of making it all happen
- There wasn't a plan in place to see how LifeSync was using the money.
The auditor general also contends the $2.6 million didn't bring economic benefits to Hardee County.
We asked Grant about the auditor general report and wondered if he thought it was totally off base. Grant said, "Absolutely! Absolutely!"
While the auditor general's office in Tallahassee is charged with looking into improprieties like it found in Hardee County, Grant contends the report is wrong, and everything he and Hardee County did was right.
Meanwhile, Teresa, who is still looking for work, thinks it's "discouraging, disheartening," and "just despicable."
What muddies the picture even more is that the auditor general says the politicians who got the $2.6 million violated their agreement with Hardee County and sold their interest in the grant money -- and the product that they never developed -- to another company. In return, they got more than a million shares of stock from the new company.
Since the auditor general visited Hardee County, the $2.6 million has created a total of 10 jobs... and three of those have gone to relatives of those involved in handing out the money.
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