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Precourt to resign from House to avoid ethics conflict

Stephenprecourt@mikevansickler

Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando, finally got his dream job and he didn’t have to worry about any pesky ethics law stopping him.

The 53-year-old former House Majority Leader was tapped Tuesday morning to be executive director for the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority. Precourt first sought the same job in 2011 but had a conflict.

On the surface, it looked like Precourt wouldn’t be eligible because of SB 2, which was passed last year, with much fanfare, as the most “comprehensive ethics reform package since 1976.”

The thrust of the 64-page bill was to prevent elected officials from using their positions for private gain. It included a provision banning lawmakers from taking a job with another public agency and also banned lawmakers from lobbying the governor’s office or executive branch for two years after they leave office (a ban prohibiting the lobbying of the Legislature is already in place).

In an opinion written by House general counsel Daniel Nordby, the dual employment issue is resolved because Precourt agreed to resign from his House position (good move, the House job pays about $29,000, the authority job starts at $175,000). As long as Precourt resigns before accepting the authority job, he’s ok. Nordby concluded that there was no evidence of Precourt using his position to get the job because the position already existed, the job was publicly advertised, and Precourt, an engineer, is qualified for the job.

As for the lobbying restrictions, Nordby concludes that Precourt couldn’t “personally” represent the authority before either the executive or legislative branch. The agency’s lobbyists, which include former House Speaker Dean Cannon and Southern Strategies, would continue to lobby, unimpeded by any restrictions on Precourt.

Read opinion here: Download Florida House legal opinion.

In addition, the counsel for the transportation authority, Joseph Passiatore, also wrote a Jan. 2 memo supporting Nordby’s conclusions.

“(Precourt) is eligible to serve as the Authority’s executive director, especially in lieu of the announced intention to resign,” Passiatore wrote. “And the restrictions on his ability to personally appear before the Legislature would not preclude him from directing the Authority’s lobbying efforts or appearing before a committee or subcommittee of the Legislature or individual Legislator when requested to do so.”

Read opinion here: Download Legal opinion.

Still, the board voted only 3-2 to award Precourt the job, which oversees a $1 billion construction campaign and 120 expressway miles, making it the largest regional toll agency in the state.

The two nay votes, Chairman Walter Ketcham and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs were not convinced.

“He can go up there and give testimony, but otherwise he can’t have contact with lawmakers or the governor’s office,” Ketcham said. “He’s limited to what he can do with Legislature. Meanwhile, he’ll be watched very carefully. If he does anything that crosses the line, people will hammer him.”

Aside from questions about ethics, Precourt’s ascension raises immediate housekeeping issues.

First elected in 2006, Precourt is term-limited out this year. So he would still have served, including during the legislative session, until a successor is decided in November’s elections. Now that he’s been named executive director, however, Precourt must resign his District 44 seat, which has already drawn three suitors for the elections later this year. In the mix are Democrats Lee Douglas and Shaun Raja. The lone Republican is Eric Eisnaugle, who was first elected to the Florida House in 2008 but was redrawn into Precourt’s district in 2012. Rather than challenge a fellow Republican, Eisnaugle stepped aside.

With the vacancy, a special election is required, meaning Precourt’s successor could be in place by the start of the legislative session in March.

Of the three candidates so far, Eisnaugle is by far the most formidable. While Eisnaugle has raised $173,755, Douglas hasn’t raised any money and Raja’s only raised $500. To the winner comes the spoils: Eisnaugle would join Rep. Mike Hill, who won a special election last year, as being a “red shirt” freshman, safely in office ahead of the rookie class of lawmakers who will choose the House Speaker for the 2021-22 session.

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