It all seemed so blithely casual. And now it’s potentially criminal.
An engineering company executive and a couple of directors from the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority, plus friends, met in Orlando, Fla., at a golf-themed sports pub called Caddyshanks after work one day last July. Beers and burgers were served. Talk turned to a possible shakeup of the expressway board and a lucrative engineering contract.
As the one-year anniversary of that get-together approaches, it has become a key element of a criminal prosecution that could put some of those involved in jail and others on the witness stand in state court in Orlando testifying about what was said and meant. The most incriminating charge in the scandal involves an expressway authority director's alleged offer to replace expressway general engineering consultant Atkins with CH2M Hill, if CH2M Hill agreed to hire some of his "friends."
Tipped off about the alleged offer, Florida investigators prevented it from ever being carried out.
Instead, state prosecutors convinced a grand jury in April to indict R. Scott Batterson, a former expressway board member and senior project manager working for consultant IBI Group, for allegedly offering the bribe last summer during the after-work gathering at the pub in the Baldwin Park section of Orlando. According to his Linked In page, Batterson has an undergraduate degree in engineering and had worked for four years at IBI, an architecture and engineering firm based in Toronto with several Florida offices.
An employee who answered the phone at IBI Group's Maitland, Fla., office says Batterson no longer is employed by the company.
The charges against Batterson include bribery by a public servant and receipt of unlawful compensation, both second-degree felonies. Batterson turned himself in to a Seminole County court, entered a plea of not guilty and was freed after posting $2,800 in bail, according to state records.
Florida lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott (R) officially disbanded the expressway authority last month and replaced it with a new Central Florida Expressway Authority. It will have new members, some to be appointed by Scott, and a new code of ethics. Prior investigations of the old expressway authority had expressed concern about corruption.
Trouble at Authorities
Removed in many cases from the kind of scrutiny to which state agencies are subject, and overseen by political appointees, turnpike and expressway authorities around the country have been seen as magnets for patronage and influence peddling.
Criminal charges lodged against members of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission last year, for example, revolved around political influence in the awarding of contracts. And politics was the motivation behind the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s infamous closing of an approach lane to the George Washington Bridge. A former staff member working for Gov. Chris Christie (R) has been charged in connection with that scandal.
Whether the Florida scandal spreads to other state officials remains unclear. According to court documents, a state Dept. of Transportation employee, Rebekah Hammond, the girlfriend of expressway authority board member Chris Dorworth, acted as a liaison between the department and the authority. A grand jury on June 5 indicted Hammond and Dorworth for alleged misdemeanor violations of the state’s public meeting laws in connection with the ouster of former board Chairman Max Crumit.
Admirers of Crumit say he was a transparency advocate during his tenure as expressway authority chairman. He is now employed at CH2M Hill.
The new allegations over the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority provide a vivid image of a public servant casually describing a quid pro quo at a cheerful get-together at a local pub.
Accompanying Batterson and some colleagues at Caddyshanks on the fateful evening was Mark Callahan, CH2M Hill’s area manager in the southeast and transportation business group leader for the company’s east region.
In a recorded lengthy interview with two state investigators on Jan. 31, Callahan under oath described what allegedly happened in the pub.
Anticipating the Chairmanship
Callahan did not initially volunteer information about the alleged offer related to the general engineering consultant contract. But investigators prompted him by saying they had information about the subject of Callahan's exchanges with Batterson from a letter and from talking to someone else involved with the events.
Born and raised in Tampa, Callahan told the investigators he has been working with the expressway authority since 1986, many of those years as an employee of engineering firm PBS&J before Atkins acquired that firm in 2010.
Callahan testified that his job entailed “having relationships” with the expressway authority board members. He described introducing himself to Scott Batterson when Batterson first became an authority board member.
“Ever find yourself in a situation that was more social?” one investigator dryly inquired.
Yes, replied Callahan, who added that Dorworth and the daughter of U.S. Rep. John Mica (R.-Fla.) also were present at Caddyshanks.