TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ A new public interest group that focuses on government ethics accused Florida's public-private economic development partnership of conflicts of interest Wednesday and said needless secrecy also keeps taxpayers from knowing how the partnership spends millions of their dollars.
The group is called Integrity Florida and the target of its “Corruption Risk Report'' is Enterprise Florida. The partnership offers state financial incentives for companies to move to or expand in Florida if they promise to create jobs.
“We just want to follow the money,'' said Integrity Florida executive director Dan Krassner. “We just want to know when the jobs are going to be here.''
Enterprise Florida President Gray Swoope disputed the report's findings and accused Krassner of “releasing half-truths to inflame emotions'' and “disseminating misinformation and misrepresentations.''
The report noted three companies on the partnership's board of directors have received incentives from Enterprise Florida: Publix Super Markets Inc., Embraer Aircraft Holding Inc., and Lockheed Martin.
Enterprise Florida spokesman Stuart Doyle denied that those and other deals cited in the report constituted conflicts of interest. Swoope's statement said board members have no input on individual projects and that final approval must come from the Department of Economic Opportunity, not Enterprise Florida.
A fourth board member, the GrayRobinson law firm, handled Enterprise Florida's legislative lobbying last year while the Ernst & Young accounting firm, which Enterprise Florida has hired to assess its performance, also received an incentive. Swoope said state law allows such contracts although benefitting board members must abstain and declare the nature of their interest.
Gov. Rick Scott, who chairs Enterprise Florida, said he's open to more transparency. But he said it must be balanced with confidentiality to ensure Florida isn't put at a disadvantage in competing for new businesses.
“We always have to remember this is individual families' money,'' Scott said. “As soon as you can you ought to provide as much information as you can to the people who are paying.''
Integrity Florida is a diverse, nonpartisan group with board members ranging from Krassner, who once worked for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, to Ben Wilcox, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Women Voters. Other board members include author and retired journalist Martin Dyckman, Northwest Florida Tea Party president Mike Hill and former Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan.
Krassner said Swoope told him the partnership plans to begin putting additional information online in July.
The report says Enterprise Florida contracted nearly $6 million in confidential incentives in 2011 and is planning more “tax-dollar giveaways with code names like `Project Bacon,' `Project Mae West,' `Project Spot and `Project Snake Eyes.'''
“We don't want to hurt the deals,'' Krassner said at a news conference. “We need the jobs, but it's important the public knows if our government is committing our tax dollars and going under contract even if it's with `Project Bacon.' We don't have to know the company name, but we need to know how much of our money is going to be spent, how much are we on the hook for.''
The report questions the practice of offering corporate seats on the partnership's board in return for $50,000 contributions and notes that Florida ranked only 12th last year in new facilities and expansions although it is the fourth-largest state. It also says Enterprise Florida gave incentives to just one company that's not on its list of targeted industries, most of which offer high-paying, high-tech jobs such as aviation, manufacturing and life sciences.
That company is Wal-Mart, which has received $18 million over the years in state incentives and more from local governments, Krassner said. He said in most cases, Wal-Mart already was planning to build stores and didn't need the incentives.
Swoope said Wal-Mart received $780,000 in incentives last year for redeveloping contaminated property known as brownfields. Projects in brownfields are not required to be targeted industries.
Offering seats on the board in return for contributions is specifically allowed by state law, Swoope said. It is standard operating procedure for such partnerships to get private investment, Doyle said. The board has 61 members, of which 36 are corporate or at-large seats. Other members, including Scott, are required by law to serve on the board or are appointed or are non-voting members.
Swoope said the 12th-place ranking was based on a single survey done for Site Selection magazine, and he questioned its accuracy.
Integrity Florida cited several media articles in the report. They included a Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald report last October saying companies filled only about a third of the 225,000 jobs promised since 1995 while the state paid 43 percent of $1.7 billion in incentives contracted to those firms.
The report recommends increasing public access to information, prioritizing new job creation and hiring an independent auditor to calculate its return on investment. The other recommendations are to close public records loopholes, focus on target industries strategy, build an online database of state and local tax incentives and add accountability clauses to incentive contracts.