State law­maker says Gaetz be­hind Or­lando air­port agency’s au­dit

Orlando Sentinel - - LOCAL & STATE - By Ja­son Garcia

A state law­maker who helped launch an au­dit of the agency that runs Or­lando In­ter­na­tional Air­port said that he did so at the re­quest of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Pan­han­dle Re­pub­li­can who has been at the cen­ter of a year­long power strug­gle at the air­port.

State Sen. Jeff Bran­des, a Re­pub­li­can from St. Peters­burg who rep­re­sents a district 100 miles from Or­lando, did not men­tion Gaetz in De­cem­ber, when he per­suaded the Florida Leg­is­la­ture’s Joint Leg­isla­tive Au­dit­ing Com­mit­tee to or­der a probe of the Greater Or­lando Aviation Author­ity’s con­tract­ing prac­tices.

But in re­sponse to ques­tions from the Or­lando Sen­tinel on Tues­day, Bran­des said the idea for the au­dit came from Gaetz.

“I talked to Matt Gaetz and he ex­pressed his con­cerns,” Bran­des said in Tal­la­has­see, where the Leg­is­la­ture had just opened its an­nual 60-day ses­sion. “And you know what? When mem­bers of Congress want an au­dit of some area of im­por­tance, I give them great def­er­ence.”

Bran­des said he didn’t speak to any­one else be­fore ask­ing his col­leagues in Tal­la­has­see to or­der the au­dit, which will be per­formed by

the state’s au­di­tor gen­eral.

Gaetz ini­tially de­clined to an­swer when the Sen­tinel asked him back in De­cem­ber if he was in­volved in Bran­des’ re­quest. He ac­knowl­edged his role Tues­day.

“I’ve been on record re­quest­ing an au­dit of GOAA for some time,” Gaetz said. “I’m fight­ing for trans­parency and au­dits. The other side is fight­ing for their sweet­heart deals.”

The con­gress­man, who has been a close po­lit­i­cal ad­viser to Florida Gov. Ron DeSan­tis, has been at the cen­ter of the tur­moil that has en­gulfed Or­lando In­ter­na­tional Air­port for a year now, ever since DeSan­tis ap­pointed four new peo­ple to the sev­en­mem­ber board that con­trols the agency. Gaetz rec­om­mended some of those ap­pointees to the gov­er­nor.

Gaetz then be­gan urg­ing board mem­bers to con­duct an au­dit, both of the air­port’s pro­cure­ment prac­tices gen­er­ally and of its for­mer top lawyer, Mar­cos Marchena, specif­i­cally. Though that ini­tial at­tempt failed, Marchena even­tu­ally de­cided to re­tire and give up his firm’s con­tract as the air­port author­ity’s gen­eral coun­sel.

That set off a scram­ble for the cov­eted con­tract, as the gen­eral coun­sel is one of the most in­flu­en­tial po­si­tions in an agency that spends hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars a year. The four DeSan­tis ap­pointees — plus one holdover ap­pointee from Florida Gov. Rick Scott — at one point tried to award un­ad­ver­tised deals to two other, po­lit­i­cally con­nected at­tor­neys.

Fac­ing in­tense crit­i­cism – and ac­cu­sa­tions of Sun­shine Law vi­o­la­tions — the board later backed down from that plan and agreed to al­low law firms to com­pete for a tem­po­rary con­tract while an in­ter­nal com­mit­tee stud­ied whether to turn the gen­eral coun­sel’s job into a full-time, in-house po­si­tion.

Bring­ing the job in-house, rather than con­tract­ing with out­side law firms, is some­thing some ac­tivist groups like the League of Women Vot­ers have rec­om­mended.

But Gaetz vowed to con­tinue push­ing for out­side in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the air­port author­ity. And his suc­cess in per­suad­ing state law­mak­ers in Tal­la­has­see to launch one shows that the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the agency is un­likely to abate any time soon.

Adding to the un­cer­tainty, DeSan­tis is pre­par­ing to ap­point at least one more new face to the air­port board.

That’s be­cause the gov­er­nor last year de­cided to name one of his ear­lier ap­pointees — Semi­nole County fit­ness-club owner Ran­dall Hunt, one of those who had been rec­om­mended to DeSan­tis by Gaetz — the new sec­re­tary of the Florida Lot­tery. Hunt re­signed his un­paid seat on the air­port board to take the six-fig­ure state job.

A spokes­woman for DeSan­tis said Tues­day that the gov­er­nor sup­ports the au­dit of the Or­lando air­port.

“Gov. DeSan­tis sup­ports au­dits be­cause they pro­vide valu­able in­for­ma­tion re­veal­ing what is done well and what needs to be done bet­ter,” spokes­woman He­len Ferre said.


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