State lawmaker says Gaetz behind Orlando airport agency’s audit
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.