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Did Prasad and DOT break Sunshine Law in ousting Orlando toll director?

What is it about toll road expressway authorities, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Sunshine Law?

About seven years ago, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority nearly melted down when it ousted its legal counsel, Steve Anderson, with a vote that looked rather suspicious. After the authority’s seven-member board in 2006 voted 5-2  to replace Anderson with the Gray Robinson law firm, overruling a selection committee, Gov. Jeb Bush ordered an investigation, prompting calls from others to review how the contract was awarded. Even the FBI looked into it.

The Authority’s then executive director, Ralph Mervine, denied any violation of the Sunshine Law that requires all board decisions be made in the open. Audits found questionable spending, but found no illegal wrongdoing. Yet the Times reported that Mervine called the five members who voted for Gray Robinson the weekend before the vote, including Don Skelton, the secretary for DOT District 7 (which includes Tampa). Mervine said he regularly called members before meetings, but his cell phone records didn’t back him up.

He later resigned, but not for any violation of the Sunshine.

With the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority now showing record revenue, it’s a forgotten chapter from long ago.

But check out what’s happening in Orlando.

WESH 2, the NBC affiliate in Orlando, is reporting that questions have arisen regarding an Aug. 28 vote by the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority in which three of the board’s five members voted to replace executive director Max Crumit.

And, like with the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, records show evidence of an effort to coordinate votes. This time, the three who voted against Crumit all happened to call or text DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad before the vote.

Because nothing illegal was found with the strange vote in Tampa, was history allowed to repeat itself?

Or worse: Is this just how the DOT operates?

Thanks to the growing popularity of texting since 2006, reporters are already gleaning more than we did from just plain old cell phone logs. WESH got ahold of this text exchange between Crumit and Prasad that is quite interesting:

Crumit: Wow. Heard today you’re voting me out of the ED position.  True?

Prasad: Nope.  If you want to leave, develop a transition plan.  No need for you to leave now.

Crumit: January.  Mayor and chairman want one more year.  Too long.

Prasad:  I agree.  January works.  Offer that and let them begin the search.  We will support that.

It’s important to note that this convo took place two days before the vote.

And then there’s this text exchange just a day before the Aug. 28 vote:

"I am very disappointed in you.  What became ur quest to seek private sector opportunities has turned into a drama.  I could have gotten you there but now I hope it doesn’t get ugly," Prasad said in a text.

"Me too," Crumit said.

The State Attorney is investigating, according to WESH. If investigators find that Prasad was coordinating votes, making sure three members, including the DOT Secretary for the Orlando area, Noranne Downs, voted to oust Crumit, that would be a violation of the Sunshine Law. WESH reports that a DOT spokesman said Prasad was not coordinating votes.

For years, the DOT has been trying to assert more direct control of local toll road boards like the ones in Orlando and Tampa because they make reams of revenue. With the gas tax bringing in dwindling money, the DOT is starved for revenue just to maintain the roads they have. Controlling OOCEA and THEA, or at least their executive directors, is one way to gain access to more revenue.

Stay tuned. This one could turn out differently than what happened in 2006.