BRADENTON, Fla. — A central Florida grand jury is investigating several actions taken by the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.
The surprise reveal about the investigation came up during a discussion in which the authority's board decided to delay hiring a new executive director for two months until the state Legislature acts on a bill that would enlarge the agency to encompass multiple counties instead of just Orange.
The vote to delay action on a new director occurred during the board's Feb. 26 meeting in which a spirited discussion peppered with political barbs took place between two members.
The discussion revealed that an ongoing state attorney's investigation into potential improprieties when the process to seek a new director began has now turned into a grand jury investigation.
OOCEA board member Teresa Jacobs, who is mayor of Orange County, said she emailed State Attorney Jeff Ashton before the meeting to ask if he had a problem with the board hiring any of three remaining candidates who were short-listed for the position, after former state Rep. Steve Precourt declined to take the job.
Ashton's reply, according to Jacobs, said he had no problem with the board considering other candidates. Ashton also said that the Orange County Grand Jury has now requested his assistance in exploring circumstances around the departure of the previous director, Max Crumit, and the selection of Precourt.
There was no reaction to the revelation about a grand jury investigation.
The board also voted to support a bill before the Legislature that expands the OOCEA after recommending that sponsors make a few changes.
Senate Bill 230 would replace the OOCEA with the Central Florida Expressway Authority and expand its service area to include Seminole, Lake, Osceola, and Orange counties. SB 230 calls for a nine-member board while a House companion bill calls for an 11-member board, most of whom would be non-elected appointees.
The OOCEA asked that bill sponsors require more area elected officials to serve on the new board, and for added measures to ensure that toll revenues are spent as closely as possible in the counties they are collected.
Concern was also expressed about proposed bond-financed toll roads already planned by Osceola County, and the OOCEA asked for measures protecting the new authority from assuming a start-up risk that could affect the larger authority's finances. The new authority will assume all tolls, obligations, and employees of the OOCEA.
The Florida Legislative session starts March 4 and runs through May 2.