I was gobsmacked by the governor’s decision to appoint Richard Toppino to replace Melva Wagner on the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) board. Governor Scott couldn’t have picked a worse candidate. It’s not because Richard Toppino is a bad guy. It’s not because he’s incapable of doing the job. I don’t know the man. He could be a saint with a genius I.Q.
Toppino is a bad candidate because he’s an officer in two family businesses that do a lot of work for the FKAA – at least $12 million in the last nine years. It’s a set-up for a major conflict of interest.
The citizens of the Florida Keys deserve much better. There were eleven applicants yet the governor chose the one with the greatest potential for a conflict of interest. Why?
I submitted a public records request for Toppino’s appointment file on December 28. It usually takes a couple of weeks for the governor’s office to respond, and there was a holiday in between so I’m expecting I’ll hear from them next week. In the mean time, I decided to follow the money.
The Florida Division of Elections has a very cool campaign finance database. You pick the election, then you pick the candidate. With the push of a button you get a list of all the donors, including names addresses and amounts. I selected the 2014 general election and candidate Rick Scott. It turns out that one of Toppino’s backers, Robert Spottswood, donated generously to the governor’s re-election campaign in 2014. Spottswood donated $3,000, the maximum allowed by law. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but all the shadiness related to the FKAA and the sewer projects gives it a murky tinge.
- As soon as the county received $30 million from the state, it went on a wild spending spree. The cost of the Cudjoe Regional project skyrocketed by $43 million. (Correction! Make that $49 million.) As a subcontractor on the project, I’m sure Toppino benefited greatly.
- When state funding for Keys sewer projects finally started to come through, the state suddenly decided that the money could not be used for refinancing as originally intended. That means that entities who complied with the state mandate in a timely manner were punished for doing so. In Key Largo’s case, this decision basically imposed a $26 million efficiency tax. Businesses** in the area are especially hard hit. That doesn’t make much sense from a “good government” perspective, does it? It’s almost like it was intentionally designed to divert all state funding to delayed and hyper-expensive projects like Cudjoe Regional.
- In 2012, the voters of the Florida Keys overwhelming supported a referendum calling for an elected board for the FKAA. It passed 70% to 30%. The bill died in the senate. This was the second attempt. The first one was vetoed in 2005 by then governor, Jeb Bush.
I’m sure $3,000 isn’t nearly enough to buy all this generosity. Besides there’s nothing to suggest that Spottswood benefits from the county and FKAA’s free-spending ways. If I keep combing through the records I’ll undoubtedly find more interesting connections.
There’s a remote possibility that the governor’s office is unaware of all the sleaze and is just being puppeted around. Bob Dean’s disappearing paperwork suggests that somebody on FKAA’s end might be playing games. The “tell” will be in how the governor’s office ultimately resolves these matters.
Will they make some provision for fair funding? Will they reconsider the appointment of Richard Toppino? What will happen with Bob Dean?
I’ve updated the “Connecting the Dots” page to reflect Spottswood’s donation. That’s the only one that jumped out at me so far. I’m sure there will be many, many more.
**The governor is constantly pushing jobs, jobs, jobs. I’m at a complete loss as to how punishing businesses in Key Largo creates jobs. Key Largo is the second largest generator of the sales tax in the Keys. Cudjoe Regional is almost exclusively a residential area. If job creation were so important, why grossly under-fund Key Largo?