A Problem for Enterprise Florida and Gov. Rick Scott: Bill Johnson
FlaglerLive | December 16, 2015
By Nancy Smith
Just what the governor doesn’t need: a reason for lawmakers to blow raspberries at his budget request for Enterprise Florida Inc. (EFI).
As it happens, they might have their reason. His name is Bill Johnson.
Turns out Johnson, Florida secretary of commerce and EFI’s president and CEO since March, is something of a bon vivant.
The same Bill Johnson who lobbies legislators for tens of millions in additional state dollars to invest in economic development because the EFI well has run dry has been living like a lord on the agency’s dime — “eating at lavish restaurants with EFI staffers and staying at expensive hotels.”
You might have heard.
The story comes from Tampa TV station FOX 13 and its examination of Johnson’s submitted expense reports from a three-month period over the summer. Reporters found that in that time the Enterprise Florida chief racked up credit card charges totaling thousands of dollars.
“A $6,600 order for four custom-made office lounge chairs for Johnson’s office, charged to his EFI credit card and paid for by state dollars, was refunded by the furniture company a few days after FOX 13 requested public records of his expenses,” FOX 13 reported.
By way of explanation, Enterprise Florida is a quasi-governmental agency — a public-private partnership. That means it doesn’t follow the same rules as government agencies. State statute decrees that 50 percent of its operating fund come from the private sector. As the story points out, in practice, it’s far less than that: “Taxpayers foot the bill for 91 percent of EFI’s operations and programs, according to EFI’s most recent financial audit, and direct private investments totaled less than $2 million last year.”
What EFI apparently does is make up for the private funding gap by using millions of dollars Visit Florida kicks in. VF is the state’s public-private tourism arm.
Here’s the rub: The investigation found that the small portion of funding that does come from private money “often pays for the kinds of expenses that wouldn’t pass muster in government.” FOX 13 reports this:
- Johnson and two other EFI employees dined at a top Tampa seafood house in May, shelling out a total of $359. Johnson’s justification on the expense report? “Discussion of area politics and strategy.”
- Also in May, Johnson had dinner at Red, a Miami steakhouse, with Doug Wheeler. Wheeler is a former colleague from his job at Florida Ports. This time the bill totaled $374. What did they talk about? “Strategy development.”
- In a three-month period, says FOX 13, he “expensed multiple dinners with his assistant, describing them as ‘planning’ and ‘working dinners,’ with checks exceeding $100 on at least two occasions.”
- On June 8, Johnson stayed at the JW Marriott in Orlando. That evening he expensed a $168.55 dinner at the resort’s steakhouse. That was the same day he called lawmakers’ unwillingness to comply with Enterprise Florida’s incentives funding request “shameful” — a statement he would later apologize for, says FOX 13. Nope, no business guests at the meal, but the expense report claims he was there for a Florida Power and Light speaking engagement.
- EFI also footed the bill for pricey hotel stays for Johnson, including $500 for a night at the JW Marriott in New York City and $378 for a night at the W Hotel in San Francisco.
But it isn’t just the expense reports that speak volumes.
In August, EFI’s board authorized $765,000 in bonuses for 79 employees. The unofficial minutes of the board meeting state that only private dollars were used for the “staff bonus pool.” But wait. Johnson, who makes a base salary of $265,000, came away from the pool with a $50,000 bonus after six months on the job.
To absolutely no one’s surprise at FOX 13, Johnson declined the station’s multiple requests for an interview. His spokesman Stephen Lawson replied by email instead, saying the boss’s charges were “100 percent” paid for by private money.
Come on, now.
We aren’t talking about wining and dining clients here. We aren’t arguing about the need to make a big impression on a top-tier business looking to relocate 100-plus jobs in Florida.
What this all-grown-up Little Lord Fauntleroy is doing is living large on what appears to be 91 percent of the taxpayer’s dime, all the while looking to the Legislature for more of it to spend.
Remember, the governor is looking for $85 million for Enterprise Florida in his proposed budget, up from $71 million last year. And even without realizing they have a “Johnson excuse,” the House and Senate have proposed much less than that — $30 million in the Senate budget, with $5 million for marketing, and $25 million in the House budget with nothing set aside for marketing.
Legislators are moved by public sentiment. Now that the word is out on Johnson, expect to see EFI face greater scrutiny.
Stephen Lawson, communications director for Enterprise Florida, told Sunshine State News, EFI isn’t dismissing the criticism: “The costs will be reviewed as part of the Enterprise Florida Audit Committee’s upcoming review of operational expenses, which is done periodically to identify areas where EFI can be more cost effective.”
Johnson, 60, was the long-time ports chief for Miami-Dade County. Insiders claim he and Scott formed a close relationship during the push to build the recently opened Port Miami tunnel. Johnson’s hire came about 18 months after he lost his bid to run Miami-Dade’s economic-development agency, the Beacon Council. Beacon hired Larry Williams, an economic-development veteran from Atlanta, instead. Johnson lives in South Beach
Scott may yet get what he wants for the pride of his fleet. But it won’t be any slam dunk. It won’t even be a jump shot from inside the key.
As Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said of EFI when he saw the FOX 13 report, “They complain about not getting money. How about spending wisely the money you are allowed to have in the legitimate pursuit of creating jobs, of getting companies to come here to create jobs?”
Perception is everything. I’m sorry to say it, but Bill Johnson has been neither smart nor sensitive. Headed into session, his behavior/demeanor is a significant liability.
Nancy Smith is the editor of Sunshine State News. She started her career at the Daily Mirror and The Observer in London before spending 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News as managing editor and associate editor. She was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1990s. Reach her by email here, or follow her on twitter at @NancyLBSmith.