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Words matter when avoiding an ethics violation


A terrific example of how absurd Tallahassee’s political theater can get, where stagecraft presents up as down, right as left, was on full display Tuesday.

It came in the form of a Tuesday press release from Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando. The one-page release was issued a few hours after the 53-year-old was chosen as the next executive director of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.

Here’s Precourt’s aw shucks reaction, according to the release from his Florida House office:

“I am honored to have the support of the OOCEA board for the position of Executive Director, and look forward to further discussing the opportunity with Chairman (Walter) Ketcham. At this time, I remain an active member of the Florida House while my family and I thoughtfully consider the options and our best path forward. I will make an announcement regarding my future with the Florida Legislature and this opportunity at the appropriate time.”

The uninitiated reader would conclude that Precourt was definitely flattered that he has the “support” of the authority, but now has to huddle with his wife and five kids and figure out what to do next. Should he take the job? So much to decide!



What’s not said in that statement is that it was Precourt who sought the expressway authority job. He has since 2011. How badly did he want it? He asked the Florida House General Counsel, Daniel Nordby, if he could accept it. Nordby, in a December opinion that Precourt requested be sent to the authority, said he could, if he first resigned from the House.

Quick math: If Precourt’s job in the House pays him $29,000, and the new job pays between $175,000 and $200,000, which one is he likely to choose? Ok, sure, he’s also an engineer, but according to his 2012 tax return, his combined income is only about $153,000, so he still makes more at the Expressway Authority’s starting salary. It will surely grow in the coming years.

How ridiculous is the premise that Precourt must now “consider the options and our best path forward”?

In the Dec. 18 memo he wrote to Precourt, Nordby states: "You have indicated that you would likely resign your seat in the Florida House of Representatives to accept the Executive Director position."

After he was chosen Tuesday, Precourt told the board chairman, Walter Ketcham, that he was looking forward to coming aboard.

“I talked to him today and he said, ‘Thanks for picking me’ and that he would welcome the opportunity to get together with me and the counsel and put together a contract,” Ketcham said.

When told about Precourt’s statement, Katcham said it was necessary to avoid violating Florida’s ethics law.

“He’s got to say that,” Katcham said. “He has to say something other than he’s going to ‘accept.’ By not saying ‘accept’ he doesn’t run afoul of the law.”

Tricky that word “accept”. When SB 2 passed last year, it prohibited lawmakers like Precourt from accepting another public employment job unless they met four conditions:

1) The position was already in existence.

2) The position was publicly advertised.

3) The public officer was subject to the same application and hiring process as other candidates.

4) The public officer meets or exceeds the “required qualifications.”

While the first three aren’t a problem, #4 is. While Precourt, who is an engineer, thinks he’s qualified for the job, that matter is actually up for debate.

“For one, he’s never worked at a toll agency,” said Katcham.

Katcham and another board member, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, voted for someone else: Jorge Figueredo, who is director of national tolls for Atkins North America and oversees more than $60 million in toll revenue. 

“I think we have a better qualified candidate and I wish we'd have gone that direction, but the board didn't and we'll have to move forward,” Jacobs said in a statement.

With that last qualification at least up for debate, Precourt would have violated the law if he had written a statement saying or implying he’s “accepted” the transportation job, Katchum said.

“It’s political speak for ‘I’m still a member of the House and I can’t take this other job without violating the law,’” Katcham said.

So what appears to be a courteous, coy and innocuous statement is actually a finely crafted statement protecting Precourt from breaking the law. Cover, in other words.

“The whole thing is awkward,” said Katcham

When asked to comment about the statement, Precourt’s legislative assistant said the lawmaker was in a meeting and couldn’t be reached.

So what about the statement? Are we really supposed to believe Precourt’s all undecided now?

“All I can tell you is that this is his official statement and that if he makes another decision about this in the future he’ll put out another statement,” said Maggie Mickler.

Should be anytime now...