Records show emails between toll-road board member, developer [Orlando Sentinel :: ]
(Orlando Sentinel (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 05--A board member of Orlando's expressway authority offered to introduce possible investors to the managing partner of a billion-dollar development pegged to a toll road the agency is building, records reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel reveal.
The documents indicate Scott Batterson of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority helped connect three companies with Maitland attorney Jim Palmer, who heads Kelly Park Crossing, which would be constructed around the sole interchange of the Wekiva Parkway for nearly 15 miles.
By authority rules, it is a conflict of interest for Batterson to vote on matters relating to Palmer if they have done business within two years.
Batterson worked as a civil engineer for IBI Group on Kelly Park Crossing in 2011 but said in an email to the Sentinel that making these connections was nothing more than "a common courtesy" for Palmer, whose project would be the largest in Apopka history.
"I have not and will not receive any financial benefit from these introductions and/or file sharing," Batterson wrote.
State Attorney Jeff Ashton obtained the emails as part of his eight-month investigation of the authority. The records show:
--On Jan. 4, 2013, Batterson told Palmer he had talked about Kelly Park Crossing with a homebuilding company from Columbus, Ohio, called M/I Homes.
"I just got of the phone with our friend ... and he would very much like to drive the property to get a better feel for the overall project and residential component," Batterson wrote.
--Ten days later, Batterson sent another email to Palmer, plus representatives from a national developer called Crescent Communities. Batterson offered to accompany the group on a tour of the property "if you all think it will add value."
Batterson also told Crescent of a website created by IBI Group, where they all could access records on Kelly Park Crossing.
"...[T]here is a ton more, so if this not enough to start with just let us know," wrote Batterson, who in May forwarded authority design plans of the Wekiva Parkway to Palmer.
--On June 5, Batterson said in an email he could arrange a lunch at a Winter Park restaurant between Palmer and a DeBartolo Development representative.
"I just spoke with Jim [Palmer] and he would be interested in meeting to discuss the project," Batterson wrote to the DeBartolo executive.
In an email to the Sentinel, Palmer said Kelly Park Crossing once had a contract with IBI Group, but his association with the firm ended in June 2011. He declined to comment further.
Michele Levy, co-president of the Orange County League of Women Voters, said, "This doesn't sound right, the old smell test." The league, she said, would like to see the records before commenting further.
Several Kelly Park Crossing issues are supposed to come before the authority board in coming months, including the purchase of 100 acres that Palmer and his investors own on which the agency intends to build the parkway. Palmer has an appraisal of $32 million, but authority officials say the price is too high. They have ordered another appraisal.
As part of the state attorney's investigation, two investigators have been attending authority meetings, among them sessions in which agency board members discuss how much to pay for land where toll roads are to be built. The Kelly Park Crossing parcel was included in those talks.
Ashton launched his investigation of the authority in September on an unrelated matter: to determine whether Batterson and fellow board members Marco Peña and Noranne Downs secretly conferred about ousting then-Executive Director Max Crumit. Agency issues can only be discussed publicly by board members
In August, the three went 3-2 against Crumit in a vote of confidence. He was hired in December 2011 to continue efforts to clean up the authority after a grand jury said two years earlier that the agency operated within a "culture of corruption." Board Chairman Walter Ketcham and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs voted in favor of Crumit, who quit in September.
Emails show other relationships
A grand jury now is involved in the probe looking at Crumit's departure, and a raft of emails were released by the authority after a public-records request. Batterson, Peña and Downs have denied any wrongdoing. Pena and Downs declined tocomment for this story.
Records show that before being named to the board by Gov. Rick Scott in July, Peña was emailing with Batterson to set up a lunch and asking his advice about trying to win the board seat.
"Do you think this will pass? I am trying to see how much effort I should put into trying to get on the board," Peña asked Batterson about a legislative effort to turn the agency into a regional authority.
Batterson also was in contact with former state Reps. Chris Dorworth, now a lobbyist, and Steve Precourt, who gave up his seat in January when he was negotiating terms of employment to replace Crumit.
Ketcham, the board chairman, has long contended Peña and Batterson are working with Dorworth to run the authority in a manner that suits their interests, including placing Precourt in the director's office.
"It looks like there was an entire game plan set up before Peña ever got on the board," Ketcham said.
Batterson, who listed Dorworth as a reference on his authority application, was in contact with Dorworth 10 times before and after the Crumit vote. Dorworth works for the Republican lobbying firm Ballard Partners. The firm's clients include two companies that do business with the authority.
Among the emails sent to Dorworth are notices about several authority meetings, including the agenda for the session of the Crumit vote; a right-of-way meeting where the Palmer property was discussed; and the letter agency attorney Joe Passiatore sent to Ashton requesting an investigation.
Dorworth, when he was a legislator, worked for Palmer, though he does not list him as a client now on a state website for lobbyists. He did not return Sentinel attempts to reach him.
Precourt was in contact seven times through emails or text messages with Batterson, most of them before Crumit quit, records show.
On July 16, Batterson wrote an email to Precourt saying, "Ps [sic] guess you heard about our boy Marco?" Pena had been appointed to the authority board that day.
Peña, Batterson and Downs voted for Precourt to succeed Crumit in January, but he ultimately declined the job after State Attorney Ashton advised the board not to hire him permanently until the investigation is complete.
The authority remains without an executive director and is being run by two deputy administrators. It is unclear when a replacement might be picked.
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