Steve Precourt

BRADENTON, Fla. - An investigation into whether three board members of the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority violated Florida law prompted the panel Wednesday to reduce the terms of a contract offer to the new executive director.

Jeffrey Ashton, state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties has asked the board to postpone Wednesday's consideration of the contract.

Ashton's office is conducting an inquiry to determine if some board members improperly communicated with each other last August before voting to seek a new director.

Three of the five board members voted to find a new agency head, which ultimately led former expressway authority director Max Crumit to resign.

The board proceeded to search for a new director, and voted Jan. 7 to have the chairman enter contract negotiations with former Florida state Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando.

Before Wednesday's meeting, Precourt had already accepted the proposed contract with annual renewals, a salary of $185,000, and three months of severance pay if the board terminated his employment at any time.

Precourt also resigned from the Legislature to take the job and fulfilled other tasks.

Five days before the meeting to consider the employment agreement, Ashton asked the expressway authority board to delay final approval of Precourt's contract.

The state attorney said the delay was justified because his review of text messages, emails, and telephonic communications of some board members raised a "reasonable suspicion that Florida law may have been violated" and that further investigation is warranted.

The inquiry could involve seeking a review by the grand jury, Ashton said in a Jan. 17 letter to authority board attorney Joe Passiatore.

Passiatore told the board at Wednesday's meeting that Precourt acted in good faith negotiating his contract and complying with various requirements, which included stepping down as a lawmaker.

Passiatore said the board could consider three options: approve the contract as proposed, modify it to give consideration to the state attorney's request, or not approve it.

Not approving the contract in some form, however, could result in a "fairly sizeable lawsuit," Passiatore said.

Board members revised the contract offer in order to bring Precourt on board, and still provide flexibility to respond if the state attorney's investigation resulted in charges that could affect prior decisions to search for a new director.

On a 3-to-2 vote, Precourt was offered a revised contract with month-to-month renewals and one month's severance pay upon termination.

Precourt had argued prior to the vote that a monthly contract is a sign of weakness that would "send a message to staff that you don't have a leader in place" that the board has confidence in.

He also said it would send a message to key stakeholders, including bondholders, that the authority is not confident in its direction, and the resulting instability could cause investors to charge more for borrowing.

The board gave Precourt until 5 p.m. Friday to review the contract with his attorney, and determine if he would accept the revised terms.

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

The agency has a $706 million capital improvement plan, and expects to be in the bond market later this year.

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