BRADENTON, Fla. — In the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority's widening scandal, three people have been indicted and a fourth person pleaded guilty to violating Florida's sunshine law.
Suspended Expressway Authority board member Scott Batterson, former state Rep. Chris Dorworth, and Dorworth's girlfriend, Rebekah Hammond, were charged late Wednesday with violating a state law prohibiting two or more elected or appointed officials from discussing agency matters in private.
Board member Marco Peña, who resigned from the board May 16 citing family matters, pleaded guilty to breaking the sunshine law before the indictments were handed down.
Gov. Rick Scott suspended Batterson from the board April 24 shortly after he was indicted for one count of bribery and two counts of solicitation for receiving unlawful compensation. The meeting law violations are misdemeanors, while the April charges against Batterson are felonies.
The charges, according to the grand jury, stem from the aspirations of some board members who allegedly used friends-with-connections to solicit favors from state officials, a circumstance that developed because of a "culture of corruption."
State Attorney Jeff Ashton said the corruption was among board members, and not employees.
The indictment says that Dorworth and Hammond acted as 'conduits" to pass information between board members, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Information from documents made public in the case, and reviewed by the paper, revealed that Batterson had drinks with CH2M Hill manager Mark Callahan.
Callahan told investigators that Batterson wanted to be board chairman, and said that he controlled three votes — his own, Peña's, and local district DOT Secretary Noranne Downs, who also sits on the board. Batterson allegedly said that Downs would vote the way she was told to by her boss, DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad.
Callahan said he assumed Dorworth, a lobbyist, would pass Batterson's aspirations to Prasad through Hammond, who was Dorworth's girlfriend and also worked as a government liaison for the DOT. She resigned shortly after being indicted.
Those conversations led to September's board meeting, when Batterson, Pena and Downs voted to search for a new executive director because then-director Max Crumit was actively seeking a new job. The vote led Crumit to resign after saying that he was told by Batterson, before the meeting, that three board members would vote to fire him.
"The charge is that this communication through third parties is, in effect, a meeting and is therefore a violation of the sunshine law," Ashton said while announcing the indictments Wednesday.
The grand jury said Downs, who was not indicted, should not be a voting member of the board since she works for the DOT, creating a conflict of interest.
The local DOT secretary's appointment is required by the legislation creating the agency. Lawmakers have used the structure in other areas of the state.
The Expressway Authority board meets Monday with only three board members because of the scandal. The board will be updated on the financing plan for the draft $870 million five-year work plan.
On Wednesday, Standard & Poor's affirmed its A ratings on the authority's $2.2 billion of outstanding revenue bonds, and said the outlook is stable.
In April, Moody's Investors Service revised its outlook to stable from negative, and affirmed its A2 ratings. The bonds are rated A by Fitch Ratings.
A bill that would create a new Central Florida Expressway Authority is on the governor's desk.
If Scott signs the bill, the new Central Florida board would assume responsibility for the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority's bonds, and the agency itself would be abolished.