BRADENTON, Fla. - With an investigation pending into hiring practices of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, a former applicant who sought to become the agency's new director alleges that OOCEA has committed itself to projects that will cause a deficit.

The allegations were made Feb. 7 by former Florida state Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, who recently turned down the director's job after the Expressway Authority board changed his proposed employment agreement to a month-to-month contract from its original five-year contract offer.

A spokeswoman for the toll-road agency said there is no deficit, and that project agreements cited by Precourt are not finalized.

In a four-page letter, Precourt said costs for a "proposed" interchange have increased almost $20 million, while public improvements associated with a privately financed passenger rail line will cost OOCEA $58 million and could require drawing on reserves "required to bolster the agency's bond ratings."

Precourt recommended the authority hire an outside auditor to better understand funding commitments. He also said the lack of leadership at the agency plus failure to hire a chief financial officer for many months has damaged morale and delayed work on the five-year work plan.

Precourt, who resigned as a state lawmaker to take the OOCEA job, accused board chairman Walter Ketchum of "backdoor dealings" in negotiating his contract.

OOCEA is "still in the middle of negotiations" on the railroad project, and it is expected that the $58 million will be paid by other partners in the deal, Ketchum said at a press conference in response to Precourt's letter.

"I see [Precourt's] letter as an attempt to scorch earth on a situation where the man got the job that he was offered, and didn't want it for some reason, at the end got cold feet, and is now trying to make himself look good," Ketchum said. "What a surprise that a politician does something like that."

Ketchum was authorized to negotiate a contract but it was subject to final board approval. The board reduced the term of the agreement due to an ongoing state attorney's inquiry into whether there were improper communications between board members when the process began to seek a new director.

Precourt turned down the amended contract Jan. 24 claiming the OOCEA repudiated the agreement.

The OOCEA will receive a presentation on the allegations made by Precourt at its meeting on Feb. 26.

The Expressway Authority has $2.6 billion of outstanding bonds rated A by Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's, and A2 by Moody's Investors Service.

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