Digital Domain debacle, take two.
The former CEO of Digital Domain is hitting back with an alternative script after an Inspector General report slammed the process that helped the now-defunct Port St. Lucie film studio get $20 million in taxpayer grants.
John Textor said the claim by Gov. Rick Scott and Enterprise Florida that the Digital Domain deal was some kind of widely discredited proposal that had been blacklisted by Enterprise Florida, only to be slipped into the budget later by aggressive lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist—is complete fiction.
In fact, Textor said, Enterprise Florida actually recommended that Florida taxpayers chip in about $11.4 million to help Digital Domain bring jobs to the state.
An email Textor provided to the Herald/Times shows that an Enterprise Florida representative wrote Textor on March 18, 2009, saying that the organization would “present to [the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development] relative to a one-time award of $6.1 million” and other awards for a “total potential FL economic incentive package” of $11.4 million. The email, not included in the IG report, said Digital Domain would be required to create 300 jobs.
EFI never went through with a recommendation to OTTED (which is required for economic incentives grants to be awarded), but Textor has a very different explanation for why that did not happen.
According to Enterprise Florida’s account, the organization refused to support funding because Digital Domain’s finances were “extremely weak” and its business model was suspect. Textor has a different story, and questions Enterprise Florida’s credibility by pointing out that the organization believed Digital Domain’s business plan was strong enough to receive an $11.4 million incentives package.
Textor believes that he and others are being thrown under the bus as a way for Gov. Rick Scott to attack the Crist administration, which was in charge when Digital Domain received funding by getting special language tacked onto the state's budget.
“They want to talk about a three year old process because somebody’s election is coming up,” he said, arguing that the current narrative about Digital Domain’s demise is politically motivated.
According to Textor, Enterprise Florida declined to recommend funding for his film studio not because they thought it risky, but because OTTED director Dale Brill tried to railroad the project. Brill, Textor said, was upset that Digital Domain and Florida State University were discussing an alternative option for getting $20 million in funding directly from the Legislature.
Email evidence from 2009 does support Textor’s narrative that Enterprise Florida and Brill may have been on board with the project in early 2009, before something changed and Brill began ignoring calls and emails. Enterprise Florida did not immediately respond to questions sent after the close of business Wednesday.
Brill, Enterprise Florida and other top officials—including Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater—have all tried to distance themselves from Digital Domain since the company went bust last year, shifting the blame to Crist. But the Inspector General report shows that several parties had a hand in approving the award—including Atwater and Jennifer Carroll, who was Scott’s lieutenant governor until she resigned abruptly this month.
Atwater, then president of the Senate, had power over the budgeting process that helped Digital Domain receive the funding, and did not object when Crist presented him a letter describing the project and it's budgeting language.
Scott blamed the deal on “the previous administration,” but his handpicked lieutenant governor had an opportunity to raise a flag about the deal back in 2009. During a hearing of the Economic Policy Committee in 2009, Rep. Carl Domino listed several concerns about the deal and said all funds should be frozen and returned to the state. Carroll, chair of that committee, opened up an inquiry. But she later wrote a letter to Crist saying that all her concerns had been addressed and she believed that there was “no impropriety in awarding [funds to] Mr. Textor and his business…”
Textor said that all the evidence points to the fact that his company did nothing improper in obtaining taxpayer funds, and he’s frustrated seeing what he described as a coordinated effort to turn an unfortunate bankruptcy into a political ammunition for Gov. Scott against Crist.
Read our earlier post on the IG report here.