On May 20, State Attorney Jeff Ashton released 543 pages worth of evidence revealing corruption in the ranks of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority. The documents revealed that the authority, which has jurisdiction over toll roads in Orlando and Orange County, has been a political pawn for its board members, who allegedly used it to push work to pals and control lucrative contracts. Shocking? Only if you don’t know the history of the authority, which has seen lots of controversy since its inception. Here’s a quick rundown of the authority’s past, much of it courtesy of its own internal historical document, “Building a Community: The History of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway.”
1963: Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority is established so the Bee Line Expressway can be built. Heavy lobbying by Martin Anderson, publisher of the Morning Sentinel, helps it along. It promptly begins making plans to build lots more toll roads around Orlando, including the 408 and 417.
1971: While Expressway Authority chairman Richard Fletcher is out of town, his fellow board members hold a hasty meeting replacing him and the board’s general counsel, J. Fenimore Cooper Jr. Fletcher is replaced by member Ralph Poe and Cooper is replaced by Poe’s pal, Winter Park attorney and incumbent Mayor Dan Hunter. It does not go unnoticed that the extensive legal work the authority would be involved in could be very lucrative for a well-connected firm like Hunter’s. After criticism, particularly by the Orlando Sentinel Star, Hunter and Poe grumpily step down from their positions.
1973: Politics interfere with the board again when its members elect a new chairman is elected without the support of then Gov. Reuben Askew, who expresses his unhappiness. The new chair resigns, and the previous chairman he replaced is re-installed. A Sentinel Star headline reads: “Enough political bickering: Let’s abolish Expressway Authority.”
1976: Noting recent months of inactivity, Sentinel Star once again calls for authority’s abolition.
1988: South Orange Community Council files suit against the authority’s plans to build an I-4 connector against the wishes of the community, noting that the “strategy of the Expressway Authority is to keep the public in the dark as much as possible.”
1989: B.J. West, a fund-raiser for Gov. Bob Martinez, is named chair of the Expressway Authority board. In 1990, the Sentinel publishes an investigative report alleging that she mingled campaign and authority business and steered contracts to firms that donated to the Martinez campaign. West is eventually indicted on charges of grand theft and misuse of office.
2004: County Commissioner Teresa Jacobs proposes putting more elected officials on the Expressway Authority’s board to require it to be more accountable to the public. Her plan fails.
2011: Expressway Authority director Mike Snyder resigns amid controversy over how the authority planned to pay for the proposed Wekiva Parkway toll road; Snyder resigned in November but continued to collect his salary until his retirement date the following March.
September 2013: Expressway Authority director Max Crumit, who attempted to keep Expressway Authority business out in the open, resigns after just two years in office. State Attorney Jeff Ashton says he will look into allegations that the Expressway Authority held secret meetings to conspire against Crumit.
January 2014: State Rep. Stephen Precourt quits his job as a public official when he is tapped to become next Expressway Authority executive director; he later turns down the position abruptly and accuses the authority of “backdoor dealings.”
April 2014: Expressway board member Scott Batterson, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the board, is indicted on bribery charges related to State Attorney Jeff Ashton’s investigation.
May 2014: Expressway board member Marco Pena resigns from his position on the board.
May-June 2014: Gov. Rick Scott expresses interest in abolishing the Expressway Authority and creating another even bigger authority that would command more money, more roadways and involve even more political appointments. Surely that will resolve the culture of corruption that has plagued the Expressway Authority since its inception.