By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
The governing board of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, operator of Tri-Rail commuter service, ditched staff plans to seek bids for lobbying services and instead rehired its longtime lobbyist amid apparent cronyism, conflicts of interest and possibly wasteful spending.
The rehiring of lobbyist Candice Ericks, vice president of TSE Consulting, the lobbying arm of Fort Lauderdale’s Tripp Scott law firm, occurred during the March SFRTA meeting. Among the SFRTA board members who voted to derail seeking bids and renew Ericks’s expiring $246,000-a-year contract was Ericks’s own boss – Tripp Scott co-founder, fellow TSE lobbyist, and SFRTA vice chairman James (Jim) Scott.
The 16-month renewal is worth $328,000.
The SFRTA’s lobbying contract is with Ericks Consultants, whose president and principal owner is Candice’s father, David Ericks. Candice Ericks, the firm’s secretary-treasurer, was out of the country and unavailable for Florida Bulldog comment.
David Ericks has not been registered to lobby for SFRTA in Tallahassee since 2018. Lauren Jackson, Candice Ericks’s government relations co-worker at TSE Consulting, said David Ericks remains an “advisor on the contract.”
Jackson said neither TSE nor Tripp Scott received any money from the deal. “That is completely separate,” Jackson said. “The Ericks Consultants contract has no financial benefit to or relationship with TSE.” She also noted that Ericks Consultants has represented the SFRTA since before its inception in 2003, “playing an instrumental role in passing its enacting legislation.”
JIM SCOTT APPEARS TO HAVE BROKEN STATE LAW
Scott, a former Republican president of the Florida Senate and Broward County commissioner, not only voted to award the contract renewal to the woman who heads his law firm’s lobbying division, he actively participated in the board’s brief discussion about postponing bids.
“Without getting into a big discussion,” Scott said, according to a Zoom video recording of the meeting obtained by Florida Bulldog using Florida’s public records law, “I just think that in view of what’s occurred here with our transit situation, so to speak, that it should be postponed at least for six months or a year.”
The video shows that the renewal deal was done in less than five minutes in the middle of the lengthy meeting. (Video of that discussion begins at 5:00.)
Scott’s vote and participation were in apparent violation of both state law and the SFRTA’s ethics policy which states, “No officer shall vote in an official capacity upon any measure which would inure to his or her special private gain or loss; which he or she knows would inure to the special private gain or loss of any principal by which he or she is retained…or which he or she knows would inure to the special private gain or loss of a relative or business associate of the officer.” (emphasis, added)
Scott, 80, also failed to publicly disclose his business relationship with Ericks, whom he hired in 2017.
Both Florida law and the authority’s ethics policy require board members to announce any conflicts and abstain from voting. Prior to any vote, they must also “publicly state to the assembly the nature of the officer’s interest in the matter from which he or she is abstaining.” Further, members who abstain “shall not participate in any Board or Committee discussion of the matter” and likewise “shall not discuss the matter with SFRTA staff or consultants.”
Scott did not respond to Florida Bulldog phone and email messages seeking comment.
ERICKS CONTRACT RENEWAL DONE SECRETIVELY
The SFRTA is a state agency that owns and operates the Tri-Rail transit system in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Its operating budget for 2022-2023 is $139.3 million. Its capital budget is an additional $72.6 million. Its governing board has 10 members, of which three are appointed by the governor.
Scott was appointed to the board by Gov. Ron DeSantis in January 2021. Also appointed by DeSantis the same day was Florida Power & Light attorney Robert Sendler, who was to play a key role in Ericks’s contract renewal.
The SFRTA renewed Ericks’s lobbying contract in near complete secrecy. There was no advance public notice of the contract renewal vote. It isn’t mentioned on SFRTA’s list of solicitations and notices of awards. Nor was the renewal on the authority’s March 25 meeting agenda. It arose only after then-Executive Director Stephen Abrams announced to the board that “now that the regular legislative session is over” staff would be seeking bids for the authority’s state lobbying contract. Ericks’s five-year, $1.23-million contract, was expiring the following month.
“It’s not like there aren’t a whole bunch of lobbying firms that can’t do this work, and probably for a lot cheaper – and better, because Ericks hasn’t gotten a dime more money for Tri-Rail from FDOT [Florida Department of Transportation] or the Legislature, which needs it desperately,” said one SFRTA staffer.
Indeed, SFRTA has for years said it needs a dedicated funding source of $50 million a year “to provide the regional transit projects South Florida’s public has requested.” A funding source has yet to be secured.
FPL LAWYER HELPS FPL LOBBYIST
But the plans of Abrams and his staff to put the SFRTA’s lobbying contract out for bids for the first time in nearly seven years quickly went out the window.
Without any discussion as to the merits of renewing Ericks’s contract, Scott’s fellow board member, Robert Sendler, immediately brought up the idea of extending it for a year. It is noteworthy that until he retired in June, Sendler was a vice president and chief litigation counsel for NextEra Energy Resources, a subsidiary of FPL parent NextEra Energy.
Ericks is a registered lobbyist for FPL. So is lobbyist Nick Iarossi, an owner of Tallahassee’s Capital City Consulting, which also has a piece of the SFRTA’s contract with Ericks Consulting via the lobbying work of partner Jim Boxold, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.
With Ericks in the room, Sendler asked whether she had been “contacted” to see if she’d be “interested” in a one-year extension on the same terms and conditions. Sendler explained that because SFRTA was in the middle of various changes, including getting a new executive director, “I would love to have my lobbying entity be selected by my new executive director…so that they would be kind of be, you know, in synch with each other.”
Next, Scott chimed in in support of postponing the bid. Someone asked Ericks if she’d agree to the bid postponement and renewal of her lucrative contract. “Yes, we would be amenable to it, 100 percent,” Ericks replied.
The one-year deal was done, unanimously.
“They were the two board members who pushed it through – and didn’t want to hear any discussion about it,” said the SFRTA staffer. “This all stinks and just goes to show what happens on these obscure boards with big budgets and too little media scrutiny. Sendler and Scott are both appointments to the SFRTA board by Governor DeSantis. I wonder how the governor’s office feels about all this favoritism and self-dealing by the governor’s appointees? He should kick them off!”
THE DEAL GETS BETTER
But the deal making wasn’t quite finished.
The video shows Deputy Executive Director Diane Hernandez Del Calvo quietly informing SFRTA chair Maria Marino, a Palm Beach County commissioner, that next year’s legislative session will happen “later.” Marino then asked for a new vote to extend the lobbying contract until after the session.
“I’m happy to accept that friendly amendment,” said an obliging Sendler. He then moved to further extend the contract, this time for an additional four months until Aug. 31, 2023. Candice Ericks agreed. Done deal, unanimously. The 16-month additional cost to SFRTA: $328,000.
The Legislature’s regular session runs from March 7 to May 5, 2023.
The SFRTA governing board members voting to approve the extensions: Scott, Sendler, Marino, current chair Raquel Regalado, Carlos Penin, Hal Valeche, Robert C.L. Vaughan and J.C. De Ona. Gerry O’Reilly and Tim Ryan had excused absences.
This was the fourth board-approved extension of the original five-year Ericks lobbying contract, including one in May 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought the total contract length to date of seven years and 11 months.
PIECES OF THE LOBBYING PIE
With previous amendments enhancing the original contract price of $1.23 million by $539,500, the total cost has now swelled to $2,097,500, authority records show.
In contrast, SFRTA has a five-year, $720,000 contract for federal legislative lobbying services with giant FTI Consulting. That contract will expire next year, too.
While TSE Consulting apparently gets no cut from the contract, other lobbying firms like Capital City Consulting do. In 2015, in an arrangement perhaps intended to minimize competition, Ericks Consultants teamed with a trio of subcontractors: Fort Lauderdale’s The (William) Rubin Group, West Palm Beach’s The (Don) Mathis Group and Miami-Dade’s The (Rodney) Barreto Group to bid on the SFRTA’s lobbying contract. Of the $246,000 annual take, Rubin got $96,000, Barreto got $50,000 and Mathis got $40,000, records show. Ericks got the rest that year.
Ericks’s take home has grown significantly over the years. And the firm’s most recent compensation report, filed Oct. 18, reveals that its contract with SFRTA accounts for most of its revenue, or between $30,000 and $40,000 per quarter. (Florida only requires lobbying firms to report compensation within various ranges.)
And the subcontractors are getting less. From Jan. 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022, Mathis reported earning $60,000 to $120,000 as Ericks’s subcontractor. Capital City and Billy Rubin’s firm, now called Rubin, Turnbull & Associates, reported their quarterly earnings from SFRTA as between $1 and $9,999.