State Rep. Jamie Grantís acceptance of millions of dollars in grant money from a public agency in Hardee County is a textbook example of why elected officials should avoid private business deals involving public money.
Grant, a Republican who represents northern Hillsborough County, pitched the deal in 2011 as a way to create tech jobs in economically depressed Hardee. He said his new company would oversee the development of a tech center in that county and produce a Web application for storing medical records that could be expected to produce $1 million in revenue by the end of 2012.
But the Web application experienced delays, and the deal is now getting attention for all the wrong reasons.
The $2.4 million Grant received comes from an economic diversification program funded by fertilizer giant Mosaic in return for mining territory. Grant applied to the Hardee County Industrial Development Authority for the grant weeks before his company incorporated, a circumstance that may have been illegal. A state auditor has determined the project was insufficiently monitored and lacked performance measurements.
Another lawmaker, Rep. Jason Brodeur of Sanford, along with Grantís campaign manager, Jennifer Lux, draw salaries from the grant. In addition, the relatives of several Hardee public officials have been hired.
Complaints about the deal landed before State Attorney Jerry Hill, who oversees the judicial circuit that includes Hardee County. Hill found no fraud or criminal wrongdoing and closed the matter. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says it is looking into the deal, although Grant says nobody from that agency has contacted him or other company officials, and the depth of that query is unknown.
Grant, an attorney elected to the House in 2010, says he regrets that he is now the focus of the deal rather than the work that is being done to infuse tech jobs into Hardeeís flagging economy. He attributes the negative publicity to opponents of the deal, and says he canít understand how the state audit came to the conclusions it did.
But suspicions are heightened any time a sitting lawmaker enters into a publicly funded business deal involving millions of dollars. That is why, regardless of the purity of motive, lawmakers should steer clear of even the appearance of using the prestige and power of their office for personal gain.
By taking the money, and paying himself $70,000, Grant opened himself to scrutiny that potentially damages his companyís ability to deliver the jobs and fill the tech center.
He says the money was not a gift. The authority can demand the $2.4 million be repaid if his company fails to deliver. He says his company continues to develop the tech center and, after delays, the mobile records Web application is for sale. It could possibly deliver lots of jobs to a county needing an economic boost.
We sincerely hope so.
Grant told Tribune reporter William March that he originally considered seeking financial backing from private investors, but sought the grant after being asked to consider a partnership with Hardee County.
He should have stuck with the private investors, or used his connections to get the deal rolling with the public money without being a party to the company or the profits.
Appearances do matter.